Why White People Find it Difficult to Talk about Race
(a four part series)
By Steve Martinot
Part 1 – Racism is a relation between white people
In the midst of a pandemic, most people simply wish for a vaccine, a shot in the arm to make the threat of disease go away. These days, people adopt a similar attitude toward that other pandemic of racism and police brutality, the one that doesn’t go away. Many people are wishing there was a vaccine for that as well.
Rayshard Brooks got shot in the back because he fell asleep in a drive-thru line and the cops who woke him wanted to handcuff him. Breonna Taylor got shot by assault rifles getting out of bed to see who had just broken down her door; it was cops serving a faulty warrant. George Floyd, handcuffed and compliant, gets his neck squashed into the pavement. All were cowardly acts of killing. In each, a black person acted as any self-respecting human would.
A thousand black and brown citizens are murdered by agents of their government every year. We see them in videos on Youtube. It is the demonstrations that have wracked cities across the country demanding justice that are trying to be the vaccine.
It is with irony that many now remember the moment, four years ago, when Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem because of police killing black people. He was intentionally misinterpreted by detractors, though he stated clearly why he did it. How can you honor the anthem of a government that kills its own people? He was punished by blacklist for raising that issue. After watching Floyd die under direct police malice, some people wondered whether Floyd might be alive today if Kaepernick had been heard, and enough of us had taken his gesture against lethal racism to heart. In 2016, all he wanted was that people talk about what was happening, talk about race and whiteness, and how to stop the killing.
Is it out of line to desire a government that respects the humanity of its citizens? Or is the desire for death so deep-seated in US culture that only social justice movements know how to talk about it? During the three months that cities experienced uprisings, massive protests, marches and building occupations after the murder of George Floyd, the police kept on killing (from Tony McDade (5/27/20) and Sean Monterrosa (6/2/20), to Trayford Pellerin (8/21/20) and Jacob Blake (8/23/20)). It is as if killing more black people were the deliberate response of the police to the demand by the people that they stop. (Cf. Steve Martinot, “On The Epidemic of Police Killings,” in Social Justice, Vol. 39 (4), 2014) It has gotten to the point where professional sports teams are refusing to play in protest, following Kaepernick’s four year lead (NBA playoffs, 8/26/20).
Black people don’t have much trouble talking among themselves about race. In general, it means talking about white people, and how people of color are beset by a white sense of entitlement and supremacy. And they talk about themselves with respect to self-defense. Conversely, when white people talk about race, it means talking about black people. "Race" is a synonym for “the other.” But white people have difficulty talking about their own role in the problem.
How does one initiate a discussion of race with white people, without falling into the pit of specific cases, statistics, and data? How do you talk about anti-racism in the first place? A white person will of course say racism is wrong. Some, those who are allies of the uprisings against police brutality, understand “Black Lives Matter” to be a demand: “stop killing black people.” But will white people say something about white complicity? Surely the police could not be doing what they do without some kind of support among the populace. What is the difficulty in demanding a government that really values justice?
This will be a four part series on this question:
1- Racism is a relation between white people
2- "Race" is not a noun, but a verb
3- The paradoxes of white racialized identity
4- What does it mean to “act white” and how to stop
The Question of Race
Against the pandemic of "racism," a variety of cures or vaccines have been rejected. Affirmative action programs were passed and then defunded, Anti-discrimination laws were passed and then made hopelessly bureaucratic. The right to vote was legislated, and then parts were repealed. Since the murder of Amadou Diallo, the beating of Rodney King, the murder of Oscar Grant, police racial profiling and brutality (aka “use of force”) have been debated and banned. Yet police practices have not changed.
When we demand the cops stop their brutality toward black people, what aspect of race are we talking about? Do we point out that they are making themselves a “role model”? Are we talking about institutional (systemic) racism? Or are the cops individually racist? When the white cop knelt on Floyd’s neck, though Floyd was already in custody and cuffed, it represented a clear intention to kill him. The cop knew the other three on his team would not stop him. Was he therefore acting as an institutional agent or an individual? Was he not the practical proof that the two, individual racism and institutional (systemic) racism, were inseparable?
In his act, and in his confidence in his team, he was making it clear that the ability of white people to be racist is always in relation to the institutional, to the systemic. "Racism" names the structure of that social confidence, not only that there is institutional back-up, but that, as a white-identified person, one can get away with it anyway. Remember the original refusal to arrest Zimmerman? White people can enact their racism because social institutions grant them that power, along with a certain impunity to do so. Individual white people exemplify standards of comportment, but social institutions provide the ethical role models.
Black people are denied all this. They don’t have such institutions to empower a "racism" for them. In effect, racism only runs one way. That’s what it means that institutions, political parties, courts, corporations, and even trade unions, are "white" structures.
How is an ordinary white person to address the issue of "race" when caught between those two modes, the individual and the institutional, and only able to speak about one at a time?
On being found out – the psychology of addressing whiteness
Let us listen in on a white person. He approaches white anti-racist activists because he wants to rethink his attitude to black people. He wants to learn something about himself, his whiteness, and his culture. He considers himself an ally of the movement because he knows the killing has to stop. When he attempts to speak about race, however, he stutters and mumbles, trying hard not to say anything too directly. What terrorizes him is the idea that he will blurt out something humiliatingly racist. He fears that others will jump on him – “don’t you know better that to say something like that?” So he is careful, afraid he will be "found out." He succeeds in suppressing his reactions, rather than examining them. He uses language that accords with the tenor of anti-racism, while aware that the social justice movement has developed a new language, one that overrides what he had originally been taught, long ago when he was a child. Is it a circle he is caught in, or a riptide?
He stutters that he knows he is prejudiced. He is fearful in the presence of black people. and is afraid to touch their skin because it appears alien. He knows racism is wrong, but he doesn’t know why. He fears he will simply be replacing one form of prejudice with another. And he doesn’t know how to make sense of that.
He fears he is disguising a reaction with a prejudice, and disguising a prejudice with a reaction, with no hint of how to escape that circle. So he concentrates on being civil, and at the same time militant about the police and the prevalence of their brutality. He is able to relate to people of color because he has a sense of what to suppress in himself. But he also realizes that, as white, he has entitlement and privilege, which provide a comfort zone for him, behind which he can retreat if necessary.
Other people tell him he must substitute an ethic of justice for an ethic of entitlement or supremacy, but he doesn’t really know what an "ethic" is. Perhaps that is part of the difficulty.
On knowing what one sees
Police brutality has brought the issue of ethics, and the confluence of individual and institutional racism, into focus. People of color, who are marching to defend their lives and communities against it, live the inseparability of individual attitudes and institutional violence. It is what they see passing in its cruisers. White people can’t see the institutional aspect very well. They don’t live it. They have to read about it in newspapers and court procedures. They may see its individual expressions, but that might not fully depict the problem for them.
Does the difficulty white people have in talking about race result from not knowing about this conjunction? Does it help that they realize they can no longer afford not to know?
From the depths of US history, the last 400 years, this killing by "cops" has had the character of a genocidal act. "Genocide" is a term that signifies the killing of a culture. It applies to the destruction of a community. Africans were ripped out of their homelands, away from their traditions of philosophy, science, technology, and governmental systems. They had their languages banned, their musical instruments barred, and they were permitted only to speak the words belonging to the colonialist language that enslaved them. And now, they are the targets of arbitrary murders as a cultural phenomenon.
How can a white person understand the problem of race as a cultural phenomenon? How can a white person uphold a desire for justice from within a culture that confers genocidal power on their whiteness? Can they even see it?
That is a problem. How can a white person see their own whiteness when their whiteness is what they see with in the first place. The eye cannot see itself seeing. For the eye to see the eye seeing, it has to look in a mirror – that is, to make itself "other" to itself. It is in that sense that white people are blind to their own white privilege. They do not have the privilege of seeing their own privilege. White privilege does not appear as privilege, but as the "normal."
Where can one find a mirror in which to look and see one’s whiteness? That mirror is in the faces, the statements and gestures, of those beset by white racism. It is in the books, the speeches, the angers, the looks and the deadpan expressions of people of color. They are the ones who see the privilege white people grant themselves and cannot see.
White people and people of color live in different worlds. People of color, and especially black people, have to out-maneuver and defend themselves against white supremacy every day of their lives. And that is not true for white people. White people breathe the air differently, do not have to think about what is walking down the street toward them at every moment, and can move about freely – except when dominated by a complex racial paranoia, like that young white woman in a park, back in June 2020, who freaked out when a black man politely asked her to keep her dog on a leash. Like the invisibility of privilege, paranoia is a form of blindness. Most white people are blind to the fact that no black community has not lost some members, young and old, to police and white violence.
Blindness enacts a number of assumptions, one being that a basic social ethics is sufficient for getting by. But if a basic social ethics is racialized, which means it has social institutionality behind it, then it is an ethics of inequality. The right of self-defense, for instance, is an ethical proposition. It is the first thing that was racialized in the US, long time ago.
Can a white person speak against either the individual or institutional dimension of the race problem while ignoring their own membership in it? How is one to simply live one’s own life if its fundamental condition is an unavoidable injustice generated by an unnoticed privilege? Isn’t that the fundamental nature of entitlement?
the paradox of white racism
One learns what it means to be white from other white people. It comes in stories and warnings and descriptions as part of childhood. Most of those stories are about black people. For white racialized consciousness, black or brown people become characters in a system of narratives, anecdotes, and images. In later life, white people relate to black people through those stories. And they relate to other white people who see those stories the same way. They enter into friendships and find social residence in their common understanding language and attitudes of those stories. In effect, it is not black people they relate to as they become white, but the white people who tell them the stories, and to their a white community.
In sum, racism is not a relation between white people and black. It is a relation between white people for which “black people” are the means. (As Simone de Beauvoir used to say in a parallel vein, marriage is a relation between men for which women are the means.) How is a white person to talk about race if they look at it as a black-white relation?
There is no reciprocity with respect to black people. The power, gratuitous hostility, domination, inferiorization, patronizing attitudes, etc. that characterize racism only go in one direction. The stories are just there to teach white people how to do it. Violence also only goes in one direction. White people kill, harass, patronize, and renarrativize black people as part of racializing them. They know they are dealing from the bottom of the deck. It is a power given them by white supremacist institutionalities. Thus, racism provides the terms by which white people can take each for granted.
When black people appear to reciprocate, to fight back, to scorn, to ignore, to placate, those are not gestures of violence but of self-defense and possibly rebellion. When done individually, the deck is stacked against them.
If racism is a form of street-level solidarity among whites, it will often be enforced by various means, even those of violence. The solidarism among segregationists, for instance, can take the form of enlistment to action, sometimes as a racializing project, and sometimes as “behavior modification.” Against the segregationists, the liberals argue that a hard exclusionary stance against black people will only cause trouble and rebellion. The better path is to integrate with its subtle long-range stratifications. Both see themselves looking out for the stability of white society, while preserving different forms of black subordination.
Both segregationists and liberals are fulfilling duties of membership in whiteness. And neither will disown it. Perhaps they refused to hear Kaepernick’s gesture of revolt out of a premonition that it would require them to deny their whiteness. But that is not the question. If one learns one’s whiteness from other white people, from whom could one learn to unlearn it?
In closing, we might mention one great vulnerability in whiteness, the esthetic dimension. It resides in the recognition that the difference in color between people is actually beautiful. The contrast between a white arm and a dark brown one set alongside each other is imminently pleasing if seen in its reality, free of the imposition of “good vs. evil.” The early colonists in Jamestown saw this immediately when the first Africans arrived in 1619. The colony quickly tried three times to outlaw mixed marriages, each time with harsher penalties. And each time it failed miserably. (Cf. Steve Martinot, The Rule of Racialization, Temple UP, 2003, pp 54-57)
The fundamental importance of the anti-racist movements is that they are the place where white people can find that mirror through which to see their whiteness in its relation to racism. That is where one can learn some of the counter-stories about justice, human consciousness, and unlearn the fictional dogmatics of white race superiority. It is in the broad dialogues around this that people can learn how to ensure the freedom and respect of those they encounter and address. For many white people, that is a hard transformation to muster. To arrive at the ability to assume the autonomy and sovereignty of all other human beings is a cultural transformation. At present, US culture does not know how to make such assumptions.
Anti-racist movements, because they threaten to make the US an actual democracy based on actual equality between people, with equal equity in social participation, have been in existence for four hundred years. Those today are standing on the shoulders of a lot of people.
In sum, the real difficulty in speaking about race for whites does not primarily arise from psychological problems or a sense of guilt. It has to do with the convoluted way the concept of race exists, its paradoxes, its structure, and its identities. To think that the problem lies in individual prejudices rather than the culture of whiteness and the raciality it imposes is to be looking at effects rather than causes. It is a form of misdirection.
We shall address this in the next article.
Note: This article was written by Steve Martinot. Check out his book The Machinery of Whiteness