Monday, April 27, 2009

The Privilege of Just Being a PERSON: Whiteness and Race Anxieties

This is a guest post by Berneta Haynes of Nickel For A Thought.

Berneta is a Ph.D candidate in English at the University of Iowa, interested in the role of the "othered" body in American cultural production and discourse. Generally, I am interested in the ways in which symbolic and metaphorical constructions of the "othered" body underscore very real divisions of race, sexuality, gender, and class in American culture.

I am writing this post in response to something that has bothered me recently, in response to a question that I’ve been asked on three separate occasions by three separate white people: “Can we just be friends (or lovers) without you being black and me being white?” During each occasion my answer was an immediate and emphatic, “No.”

Alice's role in this relationship exemplifies the narcisism of whiteness at its worst, and that narcisistic power embedded in whiteness virtually erased Tasha's personhood.

Alice's role in this relationship exemplifies the narcissism of whiteness at its worst, and that narcissistic power embedded in whiteness virtually erased Tasha's personhood.

I have always been dumbfounded and amused by the fact that the very people responsible for the creation of racial categories are the very people who can’t seem to handle racial categories anymore. The very people whose sense of power and superiority, and thereby warped sense of self, is dependant upon these racial categories can’t handle racial categories anymore. Having to deal with the fact that the brown and black world sees them as white people, rather than just people (as whiteness is supposed to be seen as the norm of humanity), is seemingly too much for white people to handle. The reality of their race creates a whole existential crisis in white folks.

This shit is funny to me, as I watch white people suffer with the realization that they too have a race and that the notion of being an individual (devoid of a racial culture) that is so embedded in the ideology of whiteness is nothing short of an illusion, as I think, “Karma is never fun.” Yes, Karma. The very group that created the notion of race in order to categorize and, thereby legitimate their oppression of, non-European “others” (in order to grasp their own identity, many cultural critics would suggest, a claim I don’t deny but one which I think completely lets whiteness off the hook) are the very people who suddenly find themselves oppressed by that notion, race, by the fact that they are also categorized as “other” by non-whites. The shit is funny to me, plain and simple.

But I want to return to the question with which I’ve framed this post. With regards to this question, I have a couple of follow-up questions: What is to be gained from such a scenario, wherein my white friend and I cast our racial identities aside and operate as friends outside of the construct of race? And who is set to gain from such a scenario? I am most certainly not going to gain from such a scenario because it will require that I ignore on a continual basis the particular power positions from within which we both operate, and the particularly disadvantaged power position from which I operate in the situation. In fact, that position of power from which the white friend operates is exactly what prompts such a question in the first place. Only a person from a position of racial privilege can ever feel capable of abandoning his/her racial identity. Only a person from a position of racial privilege can ever feel it appropriate to ask his/her lesser privileged friend to abandon his/her racial identity. Only a person from a position of racial privilege can ever feel that it is even possible for his/her lesser privileged friend to abandon his/her racial identity. For that lesser privileged person, to abandon his/her racial identity is to abandon his/her community and sense of community, that force that imbues him/her with the ability to endure and fight against the racial oppression of the racially privileged, of the white American in this context. Without this force, this community and sense of community, he/she is lost, helpless, defenseless, and vulnerable.

To answer the aforementioned question, then, I have nothing to gain from such a scenario, and in fact I have everything to lose, including part of my sense of self. The white friend is the person who gains in this scenario, but only in an illusory way. As James Baldwin would suggest, nothing is ever gained from avoiding culture (and as the notion of race is very much the foundation of American culture and the culture of whiteness, my white friend’s question is very explicitly an attempt to avoid culture and society). But what does he/she gain, however illusory: relief from his/her role in the hierarchy responsible for my very position of inferiority in that system of racial domination. What does he/she gain: the ability to sleep easy at night, and think, “I’m not racist because I can see them as just people. I’m not like the others who look like me.” What does he/she gain: the ability to think, as whiteness often does, “I’m an individual, unformed by any collective experience of race. I am beyond that (despite that fact that I benefit everyday from my whiteness).”

I write this now because I’ve been asked this question numerous times, and I just realized how much I hate this question for what it reveals about the person asking the question. I hate it because it reveals something I either couldn’t see beforehand (and thereby anticipate such a question) or wouldn’t let myself see beforehand. It reveals something truly disturbing about the person behind the question, something we’d like not to see in our friends and lovers. When a friend last semester asked me this question, I drew up defensively, said, “No,” and promptly departed from the person. I’m not sure if it was the best way to handle the situation, but it was the only way that I could handle the situation. I didn’t want to think about the situation and work through it, but recently I decided it was necessary that I work through the situation and the question that prompted the situation. I felt that it was necessary finally to put words to the pain I always feel when a person I am close to (or to whom I’ve been close) asks me such a question.

It is painful because such a question reveals to me that the friendship or relationship isn’t about me and the person: it’s purely about that person. To the white person behind the question, only they themselves matter within the friendship. No matter how much the POC’s racial identity means to him/her, if it makes the white friend uncomfortable, that POC should be willing and ready to shove his/her racial identity aside and essentially shove him/herself aside to accommodate the white friend. This is what that question means when uttered from a white person to a person of color: “You don’t matter. My comfort is what matters.” It is the narcissism of whiteness at its worst and most heartbreaking. It is this dynamic, this narcissism embedded in whiteness, that makes it so difficult for me, as a person of color (and more importantly a woman of color) to be emotionally close to the majority of white people I establish “friendships” with. A real friend would never ask a friend such a question after all, since a real friend has an understanding of his/her friend’s sense of self, and knows that such an imposition would require that friend, that POC, to do violence to him/herself by siphoning off his/her racial identity.

Ultimately, I have a response for misguided white people who ask such questions of their brown and black friends: “My color is a result of your need to create your own difference and superiority. It’s not my problem that you can’t deal with what you’ve created and, worse yet, become dependent on. But I won’t abandon myself to make friends.” A white person who asks such a question is one who is operating from a position of privilege, either unaware of that privilege or refusing to recognize it, and can thereby only see him/herself. The POC is at once made invisible within the “friendship” and, what’s more, made aware however painfully of his/her invisibility within that “friendship.” And that’s the irony in the question: it reveals that the white friend is all but incapable of seeing his non-white friend was a whole person (personhood being that which is both embedded within culture–i.e. categories of race, etc.–and beyond culture). The privilege of whiteness stems from the fact that it sees itself purely as that which is beyond culture, particularly as culture pertains to categories of race.


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