by Alexander Zubatov
I read recently in a major publication how the old ideal of race blindness, of refusing to judge people by the color of their skin and lump them into crude, overbroad, polarizing racial categories, is “actually a subtle way of insulting people of color” because “[i]t diminishes people to not see their race and their culture.” “The reality is that race affects people’s lives, and if you can’t see race, you can’t see the life they’ve lived,” the argument goes. See http://www.cnn.com/2014/09/11/us/white-minority/ Okay, got it. My consciousness has been duly raised … except, well, I have one question, if I may: why are only “people of color” subtly insulted when their color is denied? What about us people of no color? Well, because we, by definition, have no color, we couldn’t possibly be insulted, subtly or otherwise, when someone is blind to our racial experience. We have no racial experience. We are simply the default setting, the blank screen, the blank page, the blank slate.
As Kartina Richardson put it in a Salon piece last year, “White” people are “raceless.” See http://www.salon.com/2013/04/25/how_can_white_americans_be_free/ And this is apparently just part of “White” privilege: “Being The Default is the largest privilege granted to white Americans, yet it is so deeply entrenched it is the most invisible (we cannot see the edges of the atmosphere, but it exists). Whites benefit from being The Default by having inherent legitimacy in a way that’s denied to people of color. Their experience of life is ‘normal.’ Whites are free from the constant awareness (and subsequent constant paranoia) of existing in another person’s world.”
Indeed, you must’ve heard this back-and-forth at some point in your life: “What are you?” “Nothing.” “Nothing?” “Nothing, just a regular White guy.” The thrill of being nothing, yes. “I am not what I am,” as Iago said, in a chilling reversal of God’s “I am that I am” from Exodus 3:14. If God is total presence, we “Whites,” like Iago (now there’s someone to identify with!), are total absence. We’re sort of like antichrists (but in a good way). We’re so pale that we’re raceless and virtually invisible. That’s terrific, isn’t it? I don’t have to experience the terrible burden of existence. If only Descartes had read this, he would surely not have tried quite so hard to reassure himself (and the rest of us) that he actually exists, and when he came to the depressing conclusion that, after all, the very fact of his thinking proves his existence, he might have written, dispirited and deflated: “Cogito ergo sum, darn it!”
This is also probably why it’s okay in our culture to describe someone as “the Whitest guy I know” (while, of course, it would be absurd and horribly racist to describe someone as “the Blackest guy I know”) because describing someone as too “White” is simply saying that they have a whole lot of nothingness about them, which, as we just agreed, is a good thing. It’s why it’s okay to use the phrase “embarrassingly white” as an insult, as this recent Salon article did, http://www.salon.com/2015/07/01/the_oblivious_casual_racism_of_modern_conservatism_partner/, since, you know, being “White” is just pretty embarrassing, right? And it’s also why it’s okay to write a bitter, profanity-laced rant in The New Yorker, as the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz recently did, in which you fulminate against a Cornell University writing workshop you’d taken back in the early 1990s (old wounds are slow to heal, I guess), with your principal gripe being that “[t]hat shit was too white,” so that you “could write pages on the unbearable too-whiteness” of that workshop, and, indeed, “could write folio, octavo and duodecimo on its terrible whiteness — but you get the idea.” http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/04/mfa-vs-poc.html Yep, I think I got the idea: since “White” = nothing, Diaz learned nothing in that workshop, so he must’ve learned to cuss and compose hateful racist harangues somewhere else.
But, all these clear indications of the exhilarating “White” privilege of nothingness notwithstanding, I’m beginning to sense that, just maybe, even a good thing’s good only in moderation, so that being too “White” might not be all that great after all. Maybe, then, our raceless Whiteness, despite its nothingness, starts to become a kind of identity, and an unpleasant one at that. Richardson in her Salon piece agrees: “At some level, whites understand everything that they and their ancestors were a part of — slavery, Jim Crow, racism, Native-American genocide, Christian persecution, anti-gay, anti-women’s rights, anti-immigrant, capitalist, Vietnam, etc., etc., etc.” Ooh, those are some pretty nasty sins: slavery, capitalism, Vietnam …. Did I do all that? And the Holocaust … that was a “White” thing too, wasn’t it? And the Bomb. And the Great Depression. And the Industrial Revolution, with all its pollution, child labor and whatnot. And those nasty Ancient Greeks who considered everyone else to be inhuman barbarians. And all their patriarchal Greek literature, art and philosophy and the all-too-oppressive splendors of the Roman Empire (I’m glad Richardson thought to mention the Christian persecution part of it) and the Eurocentric Renaissance and the familiar parade of dead “White” males like Shakespeare and Dante and Newton and Galileo and Einstein and Leonardo and Michelangelo and Bach and Mozart and Beethoven and all that addictive, repressive technology we use every day and, well, yeah … I’m starting to see more and more of the picture, and it sure is some awful stuff.
Richardson goes on: “White culture steals because it has no soul of its own. White people are fleeing Whiteness because they do not have a way to exist apart from their history of oppression. But in fleeing, they continue that history, continuing to be blind to the largest remaining system that reinforces inequality. One which they continue to benefit from”; and here’s some more for you: “white liberals end up feeling that pain of a lack of identity and they have to look to other cultures to find meaning. This is why white American culture co-opts meaning from everyone else, from African-Americans (Elvis, Alien, Britney Spears) and Native-Americans (spirituality) and Asian-Americans (zen, Martial Arts) and India (Yoga, Meditation).”
Have you had enough? No, you don’t understand: I don’t just mean enough of this nonsense. I mean, really, have you had enough?? Enough of all the nonsense, the nonstop race-talk everywhere around, the race-baiting, the race riots, the race to cull, call out and condemn the racists in our midst, the absurd, regressive calls for race reparations in the futile, quixotic effort to cancel out a history of racial injustices by concocting a counter-history of new racial injustices, the bare-faced anti-“White” racism being spouted from every nook and cranny in which the media resides even as people get publicly persecuted for every little barely registering shadowy vestige of an anti-“Black” slight, the law enforcement officers trying to protect us all being routinely and universally demonized as racist when they cross the line with respect to anyone who is “Black,” even when there is not a shred of evidence that race motivated their actions, the endless stream of public funding for academic studies trying to make headlines by ferretting out every last implicit, unconscious bias and the media only too happy to report and inflate and distort these “important new findings,” and, even as all this talk of subconscious, implicit, underground biases in perceptions or hiring decisions inundates us, the widespread acceptance of open, explicit, shameless anti-“White” race-conscious hiring and admissions policies in government, corporations and universities alike that refuse to view you as an individual who worked hard to garner good grades, achievements and accomplishments and won’t hesitate to discriminate against you because of nothing you did, but rather, on the basis of history that’s apparently yours even if you or your parents happened to come to this country as immigrants or else on the basis of the amorphous, invisible specter of “White privilege” that takes on whatever contours it must to sanction the insidious anti-“White” racist gambit of the moment. I’ll ask you again: have you had enough? Have you had enough of being bullied in your own backyard? Is it time to rise up in protest? Yes?
Well, here is what you need to do. No, no, first, here is what you don’t need to do. Don’t take the bait. Don’t crack down. Don’t take back what’s yours. Don’t go donning the confederate flags and the white hoods. Don’t go burning black churches. Don’t meet to hatch schemes in secret in dark basements on moonless nights. That’s what they want you to do, and it’ll just make it all worse. It’ll fuel all the giddy I told you so’s that the fire-stoking preachers of the mass press will gladly and glibly rush to convey.
No, we need to be better than that. What we — “White” and “Black” and “Asian” and “Hispanic” and whatever other invented, overbroad categories I might have missed — need to do is to rise all together above the fray and the low level on which our would-be-adversaries want to conduct the conversation, if this witch hunt can be called a conversation, and put a stop to it all, not by branding and burning the witch hunters just as the witch hunters would brand and burn the witches but by breaking the divisive spell of race that holds us all in its thrall.
How do we do that? I have to start with caveats again. How do we not do it? We don’t do it by denying the obvious, which is that, even if race is a fiction that groups people from multiple cultures, mixed heritages and disparate lineages together based on the superficial features they display to the world, many people over the course of many centuries have put a whole lot of stock in that fiction and have done many terrible things in its name. We don’t do it by denying that implicit biases really do exist. Of course they do. See http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/28/opinion/nicholas-kristof-is-everyone-a-little-bit-racist.html for a quick summary of the highlights. We don’t even do it by denying the existence of “White privilege” (here is the paper that introduced the concept to the world, in case you’re interested: http://people.westminstercollege.edu/faculty/jsibbett/readings/White_Privilege.pdf) despite how sloppily that pernicious notion has been deployed in the service of an unthinking condemnation of every disparate outcome under the sun. Yeah, sure, “White” people still have it better in various tangible respects. We can admit that much.
But then what? How do we take up the good fight without denying these truths? We do it by realizing that even if all these caveats are true, the conversation isn’t advanced one iota when we talk about this stuff non-stop. The idea that we solve the problem by exposing it and combatting it wherever it might be hiding is well-intentioned to be sure, but it’s ultimately as misguided as the notion that we can end terrorism by dropping bombs. Just as the resentment bred by the war on terror may have created ten terrorists for every one we sniffed and snuffed out, the war on racism will ultimately end up breeding more racism than it dissolves. Sure there’s been progress, but “White” people are nearing a tipping point in this country. Have you seen the polls on Ferguson showing the striking disparities between “White” people and “Black” people in their perceptions of what happened there? http://www.people-press.org/2014/08/18/stark-racial-divisions-in-reactions-to-ferguson-police-shooting/ Do you think all those “White” people are talking about their real views in public? If they are, I must’ve missed most of it. But I’ve sure heard a lot of private grumbling, some reasonable, some less so. You know what happens when people are bullied into silence, when they have a perspective that they don’t feel free to voice? In comes out in other ways, in the form of all those “implicit” and “unconscious” biases we’re seeing. If it’s bottled up for long enough, it will come out more explicitly, in all-out rebellion, in calls for secession, separation or worse (and this is already beginning to happen: http://www.politicususa.com/2014/09/13/real-threat-americas-security-borders.html). Is that what we want? Endless cycles of racism and counter-racism? Militant racism fueling militant counter-racism fueling militant Dylann Roof-style racism and on and on?
In reality, our present conflagrations notwithstanding, the end of race’s long reign is nearing in America. We’re becoming more and more of a mixed-race society, and in the space of four or five generations, it’ll be impossible to tell what race most people are even supposed to be, to the point where talking about race will be pointless. Future generations will have to learn about race from grandparents and history books. But before we get to that post-racial future, there’s a big bad gulf we’ve got to cross, and there are a great many people on both sides of the aisle (mostly unintentionally) working to make that gulf bigger and badder.
The way to end the harmful associations between “Black” people and poverty, crime and a lack of education is not by drumming the idea that these associations are evil into people’s heads. Stop thinking about a white elephant, or a black elephant for that matter, right? That doesn’t work. It achieves the opposite effect. It especially doesn’t work when people are told not to form associations that the world all around them is telling them are real. The way to end those associations is to end them in the world, not in people’s heads. When the day comes when “Black” people are not disproportionately poor, uneducated and, as such, disproportionately likely to engage in criminal activity, then on that same day, or, perhaps, a few days later, all the explicit and implicit biases will, one by one, start magically disappearing of their own accord. We don’t get to that future through race-consciousness and race preferences that just build up more resentment and keep the cycle going. We get there the slow way, through old-fashioned hard work, which requires patience because it may take longer, and yet it gives us the solid foundation of knowing we did things the right way so that there’s no one to resent, no one to blame. We get there one by one at first and, later, when more solid social networks are in place, two by two, four by four and so on. We get there by “Black” people going around, if need be, with a chip on their shoulder, using whatever racist barriers they perceive as fodder to work that much harder and smarter to show up the rest of us, just as many generations of denigrated immigrants or others faced with seemingly insurmountable social and even legal obstacles have done. We get there by setting high expectations, not low ones, by calling a spade a spade and being unafraid to confront real socioeconomic problems when they arise. And we get there by stopping, once and for all, all that talk about race!
Read that last sentence again because I mean it wholly and literally. That’s where you come in more than anywhere else. We need to stop race in its tracks. We need to vanquish the concept. We need to make talking about it and thinking about people in crude, polarized racial categories, whether positively or negatively, as unacceptable as it currently is to throw around bigoted racial epithets. We need to make anyone who talks or thinks in terms of race feel like they’re Donald Sterling or Paula Deen, like they’re invoking outdated, essentialist labels and prejudices that have done a lot of historical harm and have no place in our society anymore. That means no race preferences. It means refusing to tolerate our politicians and media outlets pandering to this or that racial group or talking about race in any form. It means cutting off all public funding to inflammatory race research. It means no laws about race, except the ones that say it’s illegal to discriminate against people on the basis of anything other than their relevant qualifications for a spot or a job, whether it be religion or gender or skin pigment (a more modest and, therefore, better description than race, in any event) or what you will.
It’ll take a while, but we can do this. We can do this by insisting on conducting ourselves aspirationally, as though we are already living in the ideal society we are seeking to create, a society in which the concept of race does not exist. Race is a fiction we can overcome, and we don’t have to deny the obvious to achieve it. Sure, we all have cultures. We speak many languages. We eat different foods. We come from disparate, far-flung places. We display a continuous, nuanced range of skin pigments and other facial features. But no, we do not have race (unless we want race to have us). We are raceless. As far as race goes, we are all nothing. We are all people of no color.
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Alexander Zubatov is a practicing attorney specializing in general commercial litigation. He is also a practicing writer specializing in general non-commercial poetry, fiction, drama, essays and polemics. In the words of one of his intellectual heroes, José Ortega y Gasset, biography is “a system in which the contradictions of a human life are unified.”
Some of his articles have appeared in The Hedgehog Review, The Montreal Review, The Fortnightly Review, New English Review, Culture Wars and nthposition.
He makes occasional, unscheduled appearances on Twitter (https://twitter.com/Zoobahtov).