Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Deconstructing Whiteness

"White" is such a strange category, such a peculiar label.

Oh, I know I am supposed to fit that category, according to the perverse metric of modern-era racial categorization.  But I'm not attached to it, not in any way.  Some folks will say that this is my privilege talking, that I can feel unattached to "whiteness."    It's their right to think that, but honestly, I don't feel that connection.  In fact, to effectively dismantle white privilege, it's necessary to realize that "whiteness" does not need to be an integral part of a person.  That when "white privilege" is challenged, it's not an attack on a defining characteristic of a person, or on their identity.  It is an attack on a Power, as my faith tradition would put it.

Because the idea that there is a "white" race or ethnicity is as absurd and irrational as the misbegotten idea that there was an "Aryan" race.   It is a fabrication.  It isn't just that there's no scientific basis for such an identity.  Socioculturally, "white" is incoherent.  Are the Irish English?  Is a German French, or a Ukrainian a Russian?  No, of course not, any more than a Persian is an Arab, or a Hausa a Yoruba, or Hutu a Tutsi, or than a Korean is Japanese.

Ethnicity assumes a common set of values, shared stories and language and myth.   And where I connect with the history of my complex and muddy blood, it is there.  I recall my Scots/Dane ancestors, with their castles and crags and raven-flagged galleys.  I recall the travels of my itinerant Irish day-laborer ancestors, and the indentured English servants who were brought over as owned people.  Those parts of my mongrel heritage have specific content and place and story.  They are not perfect, as no culture's history is perfect, but I can hold them and honor them.  They are legitimately part of my self-understanding.

But "white?"  I have no "white" heritage that I allow to be an integrating influence, or in which I can take pride.  I feel "Whiteness" as an oppressive other, part of a demonic binary that would claim me.  "Whiteness" clings to my face like a suffocating shroud.

Oh, there is "white" history there, no doubt, from back when the delusion of racial dualism cast a pall over centuries of human history.  I know, for example, that there were Klansmen on the Southern branches of my family tree.  They had a sense of their "whiteness," and I remember that aspect of their identity.  But though I remember, it is remembering as lament, not embrace.

It is the kind of remembering that says, this was a grim chapter in our story, one we recall not with pride, but so it will not be repeated.

"White" is the lie of the pure racial binary, the lie that says that there are "whites" and "coloreds," or "whites" and "people of color," as if a person cannot celebrate both their Scots and Kenyan heritage, or be of Chinese and German roots, or fully embrace both Afro-Caribbean and French cultures.  It is the falseness of establishing simple dualistic boundaries on the complex continuum of human cultural identity.

I am perfectly willing to see the way that the label of "whiteness" confers unjust advantage in our culture, and the ways I unwillingly benefit from that injustice.  But "white" confers none of the narrative that I use to construct my identity, and the assumption that it does--that it must--is part of the great binary lie of race that has corrupted the American story.