The Unbearable Whiteness of Being, Part I

Art by Angela Davis Fegan

We are comfortably rooted in autumn now—only a wind away from winter. On late walks, we smile at those flames that still ripple above our heads, but the leaves beneath our feet undeniably crinkle and crunch. The year has stolen itself away—but its end seems welcome to all, tired as we are. So tired of bearing up against the unrelenting extremes that keep overlapping one another. We promise ourselves that next year must be better, knowing full well that isn’t true. That isn’t how the world works.

Our country’s presidential election has finally stopped ending. The Worst of All Possible Worlds—the parallel universe that menaces our imagination—slowly fades from possibility. Again we hope. Hope our country has plumbed its depths, that we’ll fall no further in our own esteem. Biden’s victory rang out, and people danced in the streets of New York, Philadelphia, Washington, DC. Ding dong, the witch is dead, we laughed, and Can you feel a brand new day? we sang, and Navajo, Detroiter, Brother Lover, and ATLien alike clamored for their share of referendum. Some claimed this euphoria felt even greater than that which seized us on Obama’s first run: This time, we celebrated rescue from leadership that was corrupt, inept, and indifferent to its fetid fucking core. We stared our own destruction in the face and won.

Yet we can’t properly celebrate. For all the relief we may feel, for any joy or Schadenfreude, the worst is barely past. Thickly populated holidays like tomorrow’s—not comfortably “Thanksgiving” for me anymore, but not genuinely an Indigenous People’s Day yet—are a luxury we can’t afford right now. Some insist the comforts of food and family are more important than some illusory sickness (I hope my readers aren’t that careless with their lives and those of their loved ones); the rest of us will have to watch, unhappy and uneasy, and wait for repercussions.

The plague has grown far beyond our global capacity to handle it well. Trial vaccines notwithstanding, we are in the deepest trouble of my lifetime, with no end in sight. The United States dead due to COVID-19 are beyond 250,000 now. Which is incomprehensible. Completely. And fuck it, I’m a coward—but I want it to not exist. I want to not even think it, not for ANY of us. But it’s everywhere. It’s part of all our lives. And it isn’t going away until we fucking take it seriously.

Witnessing my country’s response to this deadly serious event has been frustrating. Disheartening. Infuriating! So saddening. But I’m reminded yet again that this is who we are. We are characterized by how we respond under the worst pressure. And given our history, surprise is not among my emotions. I have to give credit for this arrogant ignorance, and this self-destructiveness, to one of the lynchpins of these United States: white supremacy. After all these years, it’s still one of our guiding lights.

For over two centuries, the U.S. has traipsed around the globe willfully, destructively, reveling in our status as Western Europe’s kid brother. That’s how many see us—including no small number of ourselves. Implicit to this belief is the need for “whiteness” to be one of our defining traits, our apogee—the archetype toward which all (should) strive. Subconsciously, far too many of us believe this, despite the fact that whiteness as we created it is, in fact, the absence of culture! The attainment of white (or suitably white-adjacent) identity requires a deliberate erasure of any outstanding ethnic and cultural markers.

Does that sound awful? It is. Regardless, that’s the Faustian bargain innumerable marginalized and immigrant hopefuls—from Ireland to Nigeria, Korea to Mexico—accept, begrudgingly or eagerly, for the chance to be American. It’s often impossible for adults who move here to eradicate sufficient evidence of their birth countries in order to convince the white majority, but some still swear fealty to it, and hold out hope their children may achieve real Americanness.

That, of course, largely depends on the kids’ own ability and desire to assimilate—and it’s only really possible when either parents or children undergo conscious, continuous rites of mutilation: either the elders push their offspring further and further from the language and traditions that should unite the generations, or the children themselves turn their backs, in favor of acceptance by peers, teachers, and other representatives of the tempting normative standard. Only by severing a person’s roots will certain white Americans believe their zeal is genuine.

White supremacy always thrives on erasure: white supremacists here bellow fascist slogans, paradoxically mocking the Europe of their forebears, though rarely as viciously as other, more inferior continents. Demanding citizens “speak American” and only “American” glorifies ignorance, ruthlessly perpetuating the same. To the white supremacist, there can be no quarter, and there must be no compromise—because consciously or not, they know whiteness is inherently insecure.

The triumph of whiteness always comes at a price, however. For the immigrant family, it drives a wedge (hopefully not a permanent one) between generations, making it more difficult every day for them to connect. In the macro sense, such assimilation deprives our country of one of its greatest strengths: phenomenal, dynamic diversity. But we continue to demand new arrivals “prove” loyalty to this, what ought to be their new home, by effacing any potential rival to the absolute, the only, the white. Because as we all know, in the miscegenation sweepstakes, whiteness will always lose. That is their greatest fear.

Now pay close attention, please, because this part needs saying: The danger of fascism does not essentially derive from any one or few of us “forgetting our roots.” Reifying another bloodline isn’t any more moral by virtue of the fact that it’s not white. Romanticizing any gene pool exacerbates pre-existing tribalism, potentially inflaming some other shitty brand of ethnic pride that, though it wears different skin, bleeds the same xenophobia. The danger lies in our choosing to be a cultural monolith, closing our doors, our borders, and our minds to the vast array of places, people, and ways of being that have developed over millennia, demanding conformity at too high a cost.

My wise and brilliant friend Ven once described someone he found admirable. This was a friend of his, a woman whose powerful disinterest in her own heritage (of East Asia), was equalled only by her passionate curiosity for another (of Scandinavia). Although she was born without any link to the latter, she took it upon herself to learn that country’s complex language and educate herself about its history and people. Her ultimate goal may have been to emigrate, or she may have been learning for learning’s sake—but the beauty Ven saw was her loving as she chose. Neither birthplace nor parentage could dictate the course her life had to take.

If only all Americans were that curious about the world! Most of us, instead, take an unjustifiable Pride in the location of our birth—a factor over which we none of us had any control! So we mindlessly repeat cherry-picked or totally fabricated versions of history that portray our country as a fairy-tale prince, denigrating and obfuscating roles other nations played (assuming they appear in our narrative at all). We gleefully engage in this childish behavior, shaping history into crude, self-serving fairy tales, and never turn a critical eye on ourselves.

And what nerve we have, then, to label immigrants—among the people who might actually believe the whitewashed stories we propagate about our greatness, who, many in outright admiration, choose this country to be their home—we call these believers second-class citizens! But most offensive of all has to be the fact that most immigrants to the U.S. have to come here. They’re often forced to come, because they’re fleeing instability in their home countries. Instability for which, overwhelmingly, our government is responsible. That is the biggest crime by far—and ignorance will never justify it.

If only we could look at the rest of the world as equals. Even better: What if all of us were as excited as Ven’s friend to choose our own spiritual homes on the basis of character and temperament, all preexisting racial/ethnic hierarchies aside? Fun thought. But the fact remains: This invented whiteness is disgustingly insidious, and uprooting it will very likely be the undertaking of many generations—whenever, if ever, we deem it worthwhile to decolonize ourselves.

In this regard, whiteness is a near-perfect analogue for the villain in one of my favorite kids’ movies. The Nothing, from The Neverending Story, is an amoral, rapacious, faceless force on a quest to unravel the essence of everything. Or, since we’re in the middle of the Plague, let’s compare whiteness to a virus far worse than COVID-19, one that dismantles every molecule of difference from a predetermined baseline model of humankind. A species not built to think nor dream nor have ideas, not to cook nor to love—and most essentially, a humanity completely incapable of change. Without diversity, the phenomenon of evolution will NEVER occur.

Whiteness has accrued some tremendous advantages. Its dominance has been engineered and wielded worldwide, mercilessly, with some of the most powerful tools available: imperialism, monotheism, slavery, patriarchy, Hollywood, The Oxford English Dictionary… Internalized racism is one of the worst—an especially pernicious strain of Racism the First, it transforms the white supremacist’s target non-white into a passionate soldier for the cause (see: Herman Cain, et al). Because of internalized racism, Ven’s friend can’t actually be a viable role model for most of us: The game is far too rigged, and has been for far too long, and most of our thinking has been narrowed in too many horrible ways. For this reason, we still need a lot of people to proclaim, “Black is beautiful!” and “Black girl magic!” and “Black lives matter!” Likewise, it’s essential that anyone with ties to marginalized, less-than-white, less European places (i.e. “shithole” countries) celebrate and share perspectives, philosophies, and knowledge endemic to those places—all that which white supremacists would surely despise, and happily destroy. The only way to prevent The Nothing from consuming us all is by disseminating options, choices, alternatives of such staggering array and power that erasing them all would be impossible.

The alternative? The alternative cannot survive. If by some monstrous hoodoo it could, that world would be definitively drab, sick, colorless. All inhabitants would speak the same dialect of the same language in the same accent, knew the same history told from the same perspective, wore the same clothes, and listened to the same songs. Choice would be eradicated, destroyed, shredded, burned, forgotten. Few or no artists, writers, and thinkers could exist—those who did, only upon agreeing to reinforce and reproduce propaganda, what was already deemed true, in unchallenging styles pre-approved, deemed acceptable and palatable by governing bodies. Science would be the study of natural laws already proven, but probably not all of them: human evolution wouldn’t need to be taught in their Christian curricula, of course, since it wouldn’t exist any longer, but study of the natural world would be perverted, too. Cuisine would be defined by its many limits, circumscribed by the few bland flavors and ingredients deemed inoffensive; “fusion” of any stripe would be gone, forbidden as soon as the door of the home spice cabinet slammed shut, barring its myriad transgressions from sight and mind. Non-native dishes too beloved to forget would be given revised histories (“Texan Takitos were invented by Daniel Boone!”). Freedom Fries here we come.

No innovation would be championed, no flash flood of ideas would ever appear on the horizon to finally wash away the stagnant and the old. Everyone would look, act, and (they’d need to pretend to) think and feel the same as everyone else, about all the same things, all the fucking time (yeah, cursing would go very goddamn quickly). The rash of suicides from those who remembered better times would be overlooked, buried, or reported as something (anything) other than what they truly were.

Writing that fiction out was a little hilarious, I admit. The above dystopia finds its kin in loads of nightmarish science fictions, among them the terrifically frightening place George Orwell described in 1984–although Kurt Vonnegut’s Fahrenheit 451 is another good option, as are many of Bradbury’s alternate Earths, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and the setting of Lois Lowry’s The Giver (nonconformist “white” people sometimes sound the loudest alarms). For me, the humor exists in the certainty so many of our 20th-century intellectuals had, that it would undoubtedly be communism goose-stepping us towards those futures—communism, or the evilly unrelenting brand of fascism inherently impossible to cultivate here, in the country that so bravely dick-punched the Nazis into oblivion! And yet. Who. Have. We. Here.

Tell it like it is.

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