2. It's on Us
Published: 10.11.2016
in the series The Spaces of Appearance
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Like so many others, I misjudged this. I had a draft of a post about how to undo whiteness post-Trump. Today these moves seem shallow, smug, self-righteous. It’s time to reflect. Trump and his followers are all about ‘them’: women, people of color, Mexicans. But what’s happened is on us, those people who are identified as white. We did this – or failed to stop it – and it’s mostly going to be people of color that pay the price.

Whiteness, it’s time to acknowledge, has been something I have resisted personally, trying to shape another identity, whether via my secular Jewishness or the Central Asian side of my ancestry. I always thought Daniel Martinez had it right on his badge for the 1993 Whitney Biennial: ‘I Can’t Imagine Wanting To Be White.’ I’ve preferred solidarity work to the undoing of whiteness. In these United States, though, if you’re not Black or Latinx, Native, South or East Asian, you’re white. Disavowing it has not helped undo whiteness.

Above all, this means owning the centrality of white supremacy to racial capitalism and the centrality of misogyny to white supremacy (and vice versa). And then really setting to work emotionally and intellectually, at long last, to know what that means as people, who get white privilege like it or not. People, in the last analysis, that cops see as ‘white’ and so don’t get shot.

Why do I say that those identified as white own this? Because ‘whiteness is property’. That is the condition of the American settler colony, as Cheryl Harris taught us in 1993. But those of us white people that have taught it did not do it well. College educated white people voted for Trump by a majority. It’s on us, college teachers.

Let’s remember Audre Lorde: "I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears." That is the place of whiteness today. Where does it live?

White Lives
At the moment I live in suburban Long Island, commuting to New York to teach. We live in a marginal House district, NY Congressional District 1. It went Democratic in the Obama wave of 2008 and then became Tea Party Republican in 2014. Last night pro-Trump Republican Lee Zeldin won by 19%.

The area is overwhelmingly white, with pockets of diversity. Everything revolves around houses: construction, refurbishment, cleaning, owning, and selling houses. The owners are nearly all white. The people doing the work are very often Brown, from Central and Latin America, although the virulent anti-immigrant movement out here has deterred many in recent years.

Whatever the cause, the suburbs are angry places now, as is now all too apparent. In their once-again huge cars, people drive as if they are at war, forcing walkers or runners off the road and colliding with each other like dodgems at the fun fair. Road rage, parking lot rage, gym rage – rage is white life.

And so yesterday, the local polling station, inaccessible except by car, was surrounded early with late model vehicles and white voters, angry that their segregated house is worth less than it was and that their segregated schools cost so much via local taxes. Only they would never put it that way. Whiteness is never, ever discussed. Taxes are somehow ‘their’ fault, whether ‘they’ means Democrats in government or such minorities as do live out here. And a candidate who embodied this inchoate sense of frustration against ‘them’ emerged, whose fury matched theirs.

"When We Breathe, We Breathe Together." Photo: MTL

In Love After Anger
Everyone is asking what to do now. It means setting oneself to renew our engagement, while finding a way do this with love, rather than with anger or (self) hatred. What’s love got to do with it? Not a love for whiteness, certainly, or even that familiar (and today improbable) injunction to love ourselves. Rather, love is when we are most undone, at least ourselves in the singular, and when we are most open to becoming part of a ‘we’ that is not who we were before.

Last week, I heard two African-American activist-scholars expound on love in the African-American tradition. Historian Robin D. G. Kelley suggested that solidarity is always an ‘aspiration,’ something to be achieved. Perhaps, then, undoing whiteness is a form of desire, part of the queer arts of failure? In her interrogation of surveillance in New York, Simone Browne cited the poet June Jordan who participated in a 1967 redesign of Harlem that was intended to make the city a space where it was ‘reasonable to love.’ Both writers are recuperating an earlier commitment to liberation rather than the present concern to find resistance. Where there is reason to love, there is solidarity, where there is solidarity, there is hope.

To be continued.

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