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Whiteness Is Blackness, and Blackness Is Whiteness

Believing otherwise corrodes us, corrodes freedom, and corrodes the world we live in
By Chloé Simone Valdary / commentarymagazine.com
Dec 28, 2019
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Whiteness Is Blackness, and Blackness Is Whiteness
“The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.” —James Baldwin

As a six-year-old attending Langston Hughes Elementary School in New Orleans, I had to engage with the writings of Maya Angelou, the poems of writers who lived during the Harlem Renaissance, and the stories of former slaves and abolitionists who were forerunners to the leaders in the civil-rights movement. Parsing and unpacking these writings were some of my first grade homework assignments, a testament to my teacher’s insistence on introducing us to the very best of our people’s power to express the tired struggles and abiding resilience of the human spirit. This artistic impulse to express and create was drilled into our collective psyche by P.E. teachers and choir leaders alike who gave this to us because we were not only black students needing to remember our past but also attendees of a school with a legendary namesake and we needed to understand and take seriously the idea of freedom. 

This freedom was sacrosanct, a product of our black experience and a rejection of any idea that tried to confine our being black to one particular label or stereotype. The stakeholders of the Jim Crow system had attempted to do that, believing that we were devils and that this was what defined “blackness.” They believed we were subhuman and so our ability to be anything—avant-garde artists or well-to-do investment bankers, charitable or devastating, complex or simple —was a rebellion against the old guard’s attempt to define us by any one experience.

And yet today, political commentators and social influencers continue to promote a narrative that eerily repeats that macabre process of categorizing people according to color in whatever grouping they deem appropriate, as if they and they alone were the arbiters of a group’s experience. 

This has been on display ever since Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, a few weeks after which well-meaning journalists characterized his tears and outrage as “angry white male” syndrome. Following Senator Susan Collins’s 45-minute defense of her decision to vote for him, she too was marred with the brush of “white woman” and accused of representing the regressive, backwards system that produced Jim Crow. 

The litany of pieces echoing these sentiments is astounding. There was Alexis Grenell asking “white women [to] come get their people” in the New York Times and Maureen Dowd, describing Kavanaugh as part of a system of “entitled white men acting like the new minority, howling about things that are being taken away from them.” (What’s especially ironic about that piece is that she pointed to the behavior of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to support her assertions—a very obviously African-American male whose behavior, if we are to believe it constituted entitlement, clearly had nothing to do with being white.) There was Rebecca Traister, of New York, accusing Susan Collins of perpetuating a “white capitalist patriarchy”; similarly, when assessing Kavanaugh’s behavior, Paul Krugman described him as part of an “angry white male caucus” defined by the “fear of losing traditional privilege.” 

These statements are easy to make because they are attractively simplistic; they help us divide the world into simple battle lines of black and white, what John McWhorter has called an “us vs. the pigs” paradigm. But what would Dowd and Krugman and Grenell and Traister make of Bill Cosby, who reportedly lashed out and cursed the prosecutor after he was convicted in April for sexual assault? Would they, believing in consistency, call this “angry black male” syndrome? Or would they instead understand the futility and cruelty of reducing an entire community of people to the behavior of one person in that community simply because he shared the same skin color? That this must be asked, still, in 2018 is a tragic reminder of how far we have to go as a society that dares to call itself “united.” 

It’s worth asking just how we arrived at this point, where passing judgement against individuals based on skin color came in vogue again and is considered not only fair game but progressive. 

I suspect that the kernels of the “angry white male” designation as a phenomenon began when intersectionality, a postmodernist social theory, began to be accepted not only in the halls of academia but also in public discourse facilitated by politicians and pop-cultural elites. 

In its most basic form, intersectionality is a theory that posits interlinked and intersecting forms of oppression. For example, a woman of color can experience discrimination for being both a woman and a person of color; this sounds logical enough, but its deeper claim is that human interaction arises not from an individual’s behavior but is entirely due to the social group to which he or she belongs. Additionally, all so-called knowledge is merely the subjective reality of one’s group. Knowledge is a construct, not an independent thing. Finally, the proponents of intersectionality believe that the only social motive that exists is power.

Intersectionality’s most basic definition masks its most sinister effects. It is, as Helen Pluckrose and James A. Lindsay write in Aero magazine, an “authoritative form of identity-based knowledge that cannot be disagreed with by anyone outside that group.…[It] argues that prejudice against white people and men is acceptable while prejudice against people of color and women is not… [and] attempts to restore a balance by ‘evening the score’ a little, particularly thinking historically.” 

This way of thinking has led to the condemnation of what some refer to as “whiteness,” a pathology that has come to serve as a stand-in for everything from exploitation to abuse to colonization to anything that is bad and malicious in human history. Whiteness is synonymous with evil behavior. Never mind that during our vast and long human history, all races and peoples have practiced forms of brutality against one another to a degree, from the indigenous Samoans of Polynesia to the !Kung San of the Kalahari desert to the ancient Aztec empire, whose blend of human sacrifice and terrorism made them arguably as brutal as the Spanish conquistadores who conquered them, if not more so. 

But history, which attests to the universality of our awesome and terrible ability to be cruel and compassionate to one another is too much of an inconvenience for those who believe that reality is merely a social construct, and that whiteness—by which one really means white people—is the defining fact of a civilizational force that has historically engaged in acts of totalistic violence and is the only force capable of doing so today. 

The acceptance of this theory has led to the acceptance of social ideas that, once taboo, are now mainstream and considered enlightened. Talk of privilege led to talk of white privilege, which led to talk of whiteness, which has now led to its latest iterations, “angry white male” syndrome and “white women come get your people” theory—a pathological belief that any time a white person is politically at odds with intersectionalist orthodoxy, it is in fact because he is white not because he may have legitimate differences of opinion. White people’s very existence is proof of the poison they supposedly spread. 

This way of thinking has influenced some of our most popular thinkers, including and perhaps especially Ta-Nehisi Coates, who in May accused the performer Kanye West of “dying to be white” and “championing a kind of freedom—a white freedom, freedom without consequence, freedom without criticism, freedom to be proud and ignorant; [and a] freedom to profit off a people in one moment and abandon them in the next.”

Once one begins to make sweeping generalizations about one group of people because of their skin color, one can begin to find justifications to do the same for others, including, one’s own community. If “whiteness” is a real thing, then “blackness” is a real thing, too—and if one does not conform to Coates’s perception of how one is supposed to behave while being black, then one is acting white. And if being white is equivalent to arrogance, theft, and exploitation, then the white male is the literal embodiment of such attributes. If a white man does not believe this is true or that is fair, then he is simply promoting a reality that serves his own power and domination. 

Like a radical religious order purging dissidents at the stake, those who believe in the doctrine of destroying “whiteness” view America as a caste system and are woefully ignorant of the exploitive measures they take in service of inverting it. Consider Louis Farrakhan, head of the Nation of Islam, who once stated in a sermon that “white people deserve to die.” Think he has no power in America? Think again. While it is disturbing that three of the four co-founders of the Women’s March were seen gleefully associating with Farrakhan—with no qualms about the obviously cruel and hateful ideas he has peddled—what’s even more disturbing is that his ideas have already become mainstream in far-left spaces. Consider Sarah Jeong, a recent hire at the New York Times editorial page. Though she kind of, sort of apologized for some of her previous tweets aimed at trolls, apropos of nothing, she once tweeted: “White people have stopped breeding. You’ll all go extinct soon. That was my plan all along.” 

And thus do the acolytes of this new cult grow: from the pulpit to the paper, giving worshippers the very thing these devout believers claim they want to take away from those who do not look like them—social and political power. 

T

he danger behind this sort of thinking cannot be overstated. The “angry white man” canard essentializes a fundamentally human impulse like anger, or sorrow, or even entitlement, and through this process we end up reducing humans to their skin color—thus taking away their dignity and justifying their destruction.

 An example of this occurred on social media when Georgetown professor Carol Christine Fair was suspended from Twitter after she suggested that “entitled white men…deserve miserable deaths…while we castrate their corpses and feed them to swine.” 

This is the inevitable end of racial essentialism. The caricaturing of white people or black people is trite and deadly. Gangbanger, thug, intellectual, artist, angry, calm, conservative, liberal—all are descriptors of human beings and none of them defines “blackness” or “whiteness.” Freedom entails the freedom to be human: autonomous and engaging in free thought. This is the freedom to be good or bad, to state intelligent opinions or uninformed ones, and it is a freedom that is no more “white” than writing an essay or stealing money is. Freedom includes the ability to be wrong sometimes. To suggest that there is only one or the other within a human being is to strip him of his depth and complexity and, subsequently, to strip ourselves of our own. As James Baldwin wrote in Notes of a Native Son, “in overlooking, denying, evading…complexity — which is nothing more than the disquieting complexity of ourselves—we are diminished and we perish.”

This tendency has been repeated for some time now in both right- and left-wing circles. Writers at Vice and Huffington Post often claim to be woke pen guides for white people as if they are the representatives of all black people. Conservatives such as Candace Owens have suggested that being black and liberal is like being a slave. While these claims are often made not out of spite for black people, those who make them are plagued by what Doris Lessing described as the “atrophy of the imagination that prevents us from seeing ourselves in every creature that breathes under the sun.” In the 21st century, we have yet to discover that we are just as selfish and as prejudiced and as fickle as we accuse one another of being, just as capable of love as we deny one other of being.

What beats in the heart of the white man also beats in the heart of the black man. It beats in the heart of Man. This is the point and the central aim of freedom. The “angry white male” canard erodes the point and that aim.

Chloé Simone Valdary is a brand ambassador at Jerusalem U, a digital media company based in Jerusalem.

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