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On Ending Whiteness

In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (see these collected reviews), Coates refers to “people who believe they are white.”  In his 2004 book, The Abolition of White DemocracyJoel Olson says he will capitalize Black when referring to people of African descent in the book because Black refers to a culture, but white does not (xviii-xix).  Olson goes on to argue that:

Whiteness was not a biological status but a political color that distinguished the free from the unfree, the equal from the inferior, the citizen from the slave.  Citizenship was not just standing…but racialized standing.  As the antithesis of the white citizen, then, Black people in the Jacksonian era were not simply noncitizens but anticitizens.  They were not merely excluded from the social compact, they were the Other that simultaneously threatened and consolidated it (43).

Olson goes on:

Because of its political significance, whiteness was not something that could be taken for granted in the antebellum era.  It was a badge of status that indicated full membership in the community and rights to all the accompanying prerequisites: the right to vote, to earn, to prosper, to educate one’s children, to own a firearm, even to riot  Recently arrived immigrants learned that, like citizenship, membership in the white race could not be assumed but had to be earned.  One did not receive the rights of American citizenship because one was white but rather the reverse: one was white because one possessed such rights.  Thus, the process of immigrant assimilation–as citizens, Democrats, Americans–was also a process of assimilation into whiteness (44-45).

A couple weeks ago, George Ciccariello-Maher associate professor of political science at Drexel tweeted sarcastically, “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.”  The people Coates refers to–“who believe they are white”–were very upset at Ciccariell0-Maher’s tweet.  Even people who claim to oppose white supremacy questioned the wisdom of Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet.  I think that response indicates a belief in the existence of “people who think they are white” and understands the tweet to mean that those people should be killed.  I don’t personally know Ciccariello-Maher beyond the world of social media, and am not claiming to speak for him.  He probably won’t even agree with this analysis which might seem too conciliatory.  But I want to suggest that this tweet is a call for the end of that dream–that people believe they are white.  It is a call for the end of a “political color” of citizenship.  The term was coined by white supremacists who are concerned that immigration and interracial marriage are diluting the white race.  The term “white genocide” implies the people who believe they are white are right to believe this, and that whiteness is a cultural designator of certain people rather than a political designation of belonging.  The term itself as a concern points not to people coming to kill white people, but to whiteness and the power of whiteness being under threat.  It seemed strange too that so many people were up in arms, because even those who coined it are not referring to the death of individuals.  I think Ciccariello-Maher’s tweet then is brilliant because it can only be read as a call for actual people to be destroyed if you believe that whiteness is a natural not a political designator.  If whiteness is a political designator, the destruction of whiteness is not the death of individual persons but the death of a system that invents race in order to justify inequality.   Perhaps people need to be reminded of the problem of false equivalencies.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thank you! A nuanced criticism on this topic is so hard to find

    January 10, 2017
  2. cruth01 #

    Right on, Adriel; only sensible thing I’ve seen on the topic.

    January 10, 2017
  3. Thanks, Adriel! I sometimes distinguish between “white” and “White” to distinguish political commitments on the subjective level (assuming your analysis of the politics of white supremacy is correct, which I think it is.)

    There’s “white” as how my skin color slots me into a political system whether I like it or not. (Side note: As we all know, “white” has changed many times. 120 years ago, my Irish and Italian immigrant ancestors were not really considered “white” in the US, whereas I, being born in 1955, have been “white” my whole life.)

    And “White” as “contributing to global white supremacy.” (So for instance the color of Locke’s skin is not really at stake, whereas the combination of the following is: 1) how he conceived “America” in the 2nd Treatise; and 2) the relation of that work and his role in the colony of South Carolina; and a bunch of other stuff too.)

    So the moral imperative is for whites to fight against Whiteness (and thereby become what the racists call “race traitors.”)

    As you know there’s also a heavy nativist angle to the “white genocide” people: if you don’t have 2 (“white,” of course) kids, then you are participating in the “population replacement program.”

    January 10, 2017
    • Much of Olson’s book is about how different peoples became white. Thanks for the reminder of the nativist element here too, which points to how whiteness is a project, not a given.

      January 10, 2017
  4. You might be curious to know that George Ciccariello-Maher and Joel Olson were close friends and intellectual collaborators.

    See ““The Most Damage I Can Do”: Joel Olson in Political Theory, Political Critique, and Political Activism” in New Political Science, a symposium introduction that he co-authored.

    January 10, 2017
    • I think I saw GCM reference something to Joel which is maybe why I thought the book was new. So I had an inkling of a connection, but thanks for the reference.

      January 10, 2017
  5. Excellent piece, as usual. I will echo the thoughts of others who appreciate you very much for writing something useful that makes clear distinctions in the aftermath of this latest Twitter-induced controversy. I wish more writers would do that, and this is one reason I like to follow philosophers: to get precise and substantive commentary on social issues.

    I was reminded of a book I read in a 400-level Sociology course called White By Law, written by Haney Lopez. You probably have already read it, but maybe someone else will be interested in it, so I’ll provide a link. It really provides good evidence for Olson’s and Coates’ claims, and I would wager that it’s the kind of evidence Olson and Coates draw upon when making them.

    January 10, 2017
  6. Becky #

    Thanks for this thought-provoking piece.

    In light of your above points, what is your commentary on the word “caucasian?” Is just a way to say “White” and pretend that it’s an ethnicity, or is it an actual ethnicity?

    January 17, 2017
    • I would say it gets used as a synonym for white to act as if white is really a culture and a race. I take Protevi’s comment above as helpful in noting that we have indeed come to treat whiteness as real which has given it real effect in the world but there is no basis to that real effect except our treating it as such. So once we stopped treating it as such we could consider Caucasian to refer to the people of the Caucasus region.

      January 17, 2017
  7. Deyasi #

    Excellent post. And thank you for introducing me to the work of Joel Olson.

    January 22, 2017

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