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 Democracy, Joel 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.