The White Issue: White Fright
May 18, 1993
For a hot minute in the 1970s, white Americans in general felt bad about racism at home and racist imperialism abroad. For the first time in American history, blacks, browns, and Asians had a little social cachet, were actually sought-after in some venues. Then came Bakke, the backlash, claims of “reverse discrimination” and the evil of quotas, the demonization of “welfare queens,” the criminalization of black and brown youth, and the splitting-off of Asian “model minorities” for use as a battering ram against blacks and Latinos. Guilty white liberalism has continued, though, as a thin thread weaving through the body politic, and we now have three key white modes of dealing with multiracial America — offense, defense, and self-abasement.
Offense is simple. It’s one young San Francisco paesana’s exclamation: “I am prejudiced — blacks, Mexicans, whatever.” It’s also simple racism masquerading as appreciation, as in that fraud Camille Paglia’s vile declarations about black — not to mention female and gay — “essence.” (Paglia is the middlebrow’s Rush Limbaugh in drag.)
Defense is more complicated and interesting. White Americans across class, gender, and region try to define themselves out of the oppressor class, to construct a blameless white identity, to get out from under the old leftist insight that we all benefit from “white skin privilege.” The most common is the white ethnic’s weasel: “Hey, my people weren’t here during slavery. We’ve got nothing to do with this stuff.” I wish I had a dollar for every time some paesan or Pole or Greek or Jew has started kvetching to me about how his ancestors didn’t own slaves, her parents or grandparents worked their fingers to the bone, therefore he or she has no responsibility to fight racism. A variation on this theme, not heard since Reagan shut down the leftover trickle of War on Poverty funds, is the white ethnic demand for public resources “since we were oppressed too.” Defense can also be combined with offense, as in, “We don’t do anything to them, but they rob and rape us.”
Self-abasement — “Oh God, I feel so guilty being white!” — is the least common white stance, most often seen among progressive activists and among college students who gravitate to race studies and feminist courses. It’s not really much use anyway; breast-beating is the antithesis of clear thinking, and is really only a variation on the theme of navel-gazing. And breast-beaters or not, white progressives have their race problems too.
Consider one college classroom: young, fresh-faced, heavily made-up white women mulishly resist reading and talking about black, brown, and Asian women’s experiences in America, asking when they’re going to learn some “real feminism” that’s relevant to their own lives. Like Betty Friedan.
Another college classroom: white post-modern sophisticates, complete with nose studs and purple hair, happily banter the male colonial gaze, Otherness, Bakhtin, Bourdieu, Lacan. But when the professor brings up the false discourse about the American minority underclass, the girls turn neocon: “But blacks are poor because they have too many babies.”
Ah, sisters under the skin. It seems that some Others really are Other after all. Welcome to the wonderful world of multicultural education. But the point is not the middle-aged teacher’s lament that, hip or unhip, the kids aren’t all right. Nor is it to write an exposé of the already well-discussed theme of racism among white feminists. (The boys, after all, aren’t any better on this score. But the cultural feminists among us would like to believe that we girls are pure and that racism is carried only on the Y chromosome.) The point is that “multiculturalism” (or “diversity” or “respect for difference”) in the classroom or the boardroom or the kitchen table or the street is not the cure for contemporary racism. It may have won the progressive epistemological sweepstakes, but we should take back the money and hold another drawing. It’s a stupidly obfuscating frame for understanding racial and ethnic difference in America, and it leads ineluctably to I-want-a-piece-of-the-pie fights over cultural issues that never penetrate to the roots of power. Culture in the United States is inextricably linked to class; and “multiculture” runs away from admitting class stratification as fast as its little Disneyland-doll, Benetton-ad legs can carry it.
If you frame history in terms of “contributions,” after all, you implicitly deny the fact that history is more importantly about shifting systems of inequality. The artistic phenomena most often seen as contributory derive either from unfairly gained wealth or from reactions to oppression. Henry Clay Frick “contributed” a high-art museum to New York City, amassing the resources to do so by serving as Andrew Carnegie’s brutal, strike-breaking aide-de-camp. There’s blood on those beautiful Vermeers. Black America has “contributed” the blues, jazz, and other musical forms to the world, but slavery, rural peonage, and urban exploitation are those musical productions’ roots. I don’t know about you, but I’d sure trade a triumphant post–Civil War Reconstruction and thus black social and economic equal rights over the past century — imagine, no lynchings, no sharecropping, no ghettos, black political representation from day one, poverty but not racialized poverty, none of the crap about “racial cultures” causing crime — even for the combined oeuvre of Bessie Smith, Big Maybelle, Dinah Washington, and Aretha. Of course it’s all a fantasy; there is no reliving the past, no “art for social justice” debt swap in the wings. But the fantasy highlights the point that listening to Dinah just isn’t the same thing as fighting for social justice.
The “adding voices to our common history” game is equally problematic. It encourages the mean-spirited “what about my voice” line that we heard first in the white ethnic rediscovery of the 1970s, because it fails to anchor social experience in economy. Yes, European migrants and their children suffered poverty and racism in the American past. Hey, so what? Most Americans’ grandparents were exploited workers. What does that have to do with explicit policy discrimination against minorities throughout this century and into the present? That means big federal bucks did and do subsidize whites, particularly the wealthy and suburban middle-class ones. These federal subsidies, not race, not sex, not death, are the real taboos of 20th-century America. And in fact, neither blacks, Latins, nor Asians “finding their voices,” “pursuing their identities,” “investigating difference,” or “considering their contributions to the common culture,” nor whites accepting or resisting them doing so, are learning anything about American histories of housing, infrastructure, job, and education discrimination, about which government policies have done what to whom.
Sure, it can’t be bad for whites to learn about Memphis Minnie and Celia Cruz; about slave narratives and the trickster, La Malinche and La Llorona, about Frida Kahlo and Zora Neale Hurston and Ann Petry, about Gullah and Santeria. But it’s too easy to incorporate this knowledge, whether you’re white or a better-off minority, into a touristic vision of new consumption possibilities — just as the hip “urban pioneers” of the 1970s were ultimately about consuming minority and immigrant ”culture” as their real estate dollars chased minorities and immigrants out of neighborhood after neighborhood. Has the burgeoning white popularity of rap, salsa, world beat come with a new commitment to social democracy at home and anti-imperialism abroad? Does eating collards, chalupas, or kimchi mean you’ll pressure Congress to raise the minimum wage, tax the rich, enforce civil rights laws, and outlaw runaway shops? Of course not. Buying different stuff is obviously fine, may help out a handful of ethnic entrepreneurs — it made for a cute Inauguration — but it doesn’t really touch the American system of racial/ethnic stratification. And “cultural politics” is ultimately about buying (or not buying), about expanding what gets bought, not democratizing who gets to buy.
Ironically, “diversity” functions exactly like hoary old 1950s American “pluralism.” Both assume easily identifiable, tight-knit groups who should have bits of the spoils of the system — the classic pieces of the pie — doled out to them in response to how loudly they yell. Both fail to comprehend either that groups are in fact not clear-cut (and in any event are rarely homogeneous) or that the pie is simply not a concrete given. It never ceases to amaze me that pomo types, who are supposed to hold high the banner of cultural construction, still fall for the line that “the economy” constrains our social spending. Instead of navel-gazing about blameless or guilty white identity, we need to focus on organizing against the “era of limits,” limits that always magically disappear when it comes to bailing out the wealthy at home or killing brown-skinned people abroad. And don’t hand me the line that we can’t rock the boat, that challenging corporate and governmental power isn’t feasible, so the only possible rhetoric is namby-pamby “diversity.” That road got us Clarence Thomas, Ron Brown, and Hazel O’Leary. No, we can and should do better. Relatively powerless, underpaid elementary-school teachers have created an entire generation of raging, snarling little baby eco-freaks who’ve terrorized their parents into quitting smoking, recycling, suing corporations, and voting for Ozone Man. We made a lot of noise about Columbus. It’s past time to make noise about a conversion budget with massive federal infrastructure spending, about federal enforcement of civil rights laws, about a national health plan that cuts out the insurance companies, about a return to progressive taxation, about a major federal child-care program, about enforcing International Labor Organization rules on U.S.-based multinationals and any others who wish to sell goods to Americans. If we could move in those directions, it really might start to look like a small, small world with the dancing dolls of every “culture” able to afford their costumes and with something to dance about. I’d even be willing to do the polka. ■