Wednesday, March 25, 2009

POC’S Special Knowledge of Whiteness III

This is third and finale instalment by whatsername of the Jaded Hippy.

Part III:
Varying interaction with this hierarchal system also happens on an economic level. An interesting case is examined by Kathleen Brown; “tithing” in 1643 Virginia.(18) In the tithing system, all men were “tithable”, or taxable. This meant that taxes were levied on the household per man in it. It was also decided by the government (the English crown) that Black women would be taxable, whereas white women would not. This was naturally based on the prevailing attitude that it was inappropriate for “ladies” (read: proper, “civilized,” women) to work, while Black women were “drudges” and predisposed for labor.(19) On a practical level what this amounted to was making it significantly more expensive for a free Black household to operate than a white household. While I would argue that in a twisted sense it served to devalue both white and Black women (white because they were relegated to delicate flowers incapable of labor and Black because they were estimated as “naturally suited” to it) the more insidious fact is the setting up of a system in which Black households were unavoidably disadvantaged and less able to prosper, thus rather inevitably creating the conditions needed for generational poverty. In a twisted way this also reinforced the different understandings of whiteness held by Black folks and white folks. Black families must have seen the predicament this put them in financially, but I would be very surprised to learn they did not also see the sheer hypocrisy of the set up, a habit of whiteness paying lip service to an idea but really doing whatever it wants to do in practice. A system which amounts to “do as I say, not as I do”. A system we still see in operation today.

This sheer hypocrisy of whiteness is also examined by Eric Lott in his discussion of blackface performance in the mid-1800’s.(20) Lott claims that minstrel shows and blackface came from a place of love and a desire for educating white masses about black culture (among other motivations).(21) Yet, even assuming this motivation to be honestly felt, we are left with some extraordinarily hateful representations of both Black men and women in the shows themselves. This disparity is not easily reconciled, if it is in fact reconcilable at all. A point made all the more poignant by Lott’s observations of white minstrels’ pathetic attempts at covering up their outright plagiarism with stories of inspiration from hearing "mysterious and beautiful Black voices" echoing from street corners or horse carts.(22)

The lesson learned by the behavior observed from white people in the works by Brown and Lott is that whiteness allows for hypocrisy, that white people are accountable for this to no one, and rather, are completely oblivious to it. Is it any wonder that bell hooks experiences whiteness as terrifying? That Kimberle Crenshaw observes again and again the social and legal divide between the world white women inhabit when compared to women of color? Or that Renee Martin stresses the importance of not trusting white women blindly, because “on an individual level we can…share intimacies but on a systemic level whiteness will always divide us”?(23) I began with the question of what special knowledge people of color have of whiteness. It is the privileges white people don’t even know they have; privileges people of color get to see because they see whiteness at its most honest, when it thinks no one else is actually watching.

(18)Brown, Kathleen. Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
(19)Brown, Kathleen. 116.
(20)Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
(21)Lott, Eric. 59.
(22)Lott, Eric. 59.
(23)Martin, Renee. “Blind Allegiance to White Women.” Womanist Musings.

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