For its owners, whiteness is constructed as something benign and innocent. Historically, and into the present, whiteness is the stuff of terror, fear, and death for a great many people around the world.
The KKK wore white robes in order to terrify black people by channeling the energy of ghouls and ghosts as they hung, raped, tortured, dismembered, murdered, and killed African-Americans in the post-Emancipation South.
First Nations and other peoples quickly came to realize that "the white man" was a harbinger of death and destruction. In fact, aboriginal and other cultures had to invent language in order to describe these "white men," who if encountered, should be treated with fear and caution.
Olaudah Equiano famously described the slave ships (and white crewmen) that transported him and his fellow Africans across the Atlantic in their hellish bowels as horrible monsters crewed by demons, and controlled by strange, wicked men from another world.
What follows will hurt some white folks to hear. It is nonetheless the truth.
A presumption of an existentially noble and good whiteness is a premise that allows white folks to exist in a space of perpetual innocence where the deeds of killers, murderers, and evil doers "who happen to be white" are a reflection on individual shortcomings, and never, almost by definition, comments on the character of "the white race."
For example, James Holmes can shoot dozens of people during Batman the Dark Knight Rises and he is not a reflection on pathological white masculinity. Instead Holmes is a less than ideal-typical case because he is "crazy" or "insane." Wade Michael Page can kill six Sikh-Americans during their worship service and he is just a "crazy" white supremacist who is automatically an outlier, one that is excluded from any conversation about what his behavior tells us about white racial identity, masculinity, violence, and hostility to the Other in the Age of Obama.
Ultimately, white people who commit wanton acts of murder and violence are individuals who just happen to be white and commit crime; people of color--especially African-Americans--who commit crime are representative of both their whole community, as well as a subculture and community in "crisis." As such, Americans tend to speak naturally and with great ease about "black crime." By comparison, and despite a white monopoly on whole categories of criminality, the language of "white crime" does not even exist in the public discourse or collective consciousness.
A plain statement of this reality is not news to people of color. In the United States, we learn these life lessons as a means of survival, and in order to successfully navigate a society where whiteness is normality, privilege, property, invisibility, and fashions itself as neutral and kind.
A plain statement of these facts may be upsetting to some white folks who have not had a moment of critical self-reflection about the deep relationship between whiteness, power, privilege, and violence. White race traitors and self-aware folk will nod with agreement, because to them, the latter observation is a simple and obvious one. To the uninitiated, this "real talk" as I like to call it, may hurt a bit...such is life.
Brotha Wolf, a frequent commenter on my blog We Are Respectable Negroes, offered up a particularly lucid and sharp observation about the mass shooting of Sikh-Americans by a white supremacist in Wisconsin where he noted that:
There's another thing about whiteness that should be noted. White people see themselves as a monolith of greatness, morality, and decency. Any act of cruelty or insanity is an individual act as written in this post.This reminds me of Toni Morrison's devastating argument about the relationship between whiteness, violence, and terror--one that many white folks are both blind to and ignorant of--in her book Playing in the Dark:
On the other hand, black people are seen as a monolith of stupidity, violence, unethical behavior and worthlessness. Plus, any form of achievement or greatness is separated from the narrative of the "typical black person". Those acts are individualized and seen as exceptions to the rule.
Bell Hooks signals to Morrison's powerful observations when she writes that:
If the mask of whiteness, the pretense, represents it as always benign, benevolent, then what this representation obscures is the representation of danger, the sense of threat...In contemporary society, white and black people alike believe that racism no longer exists. This erasure, however mythic, diffuses the representation of whiteness as terror in the black imagination. It allows for assimilation and forgetfulness.There should be a national intervention about the relationship between white masculinity, gun culture, and mass violence. We know that such a conversation will not occur.
The eagerness with which contemporary society does away with racism, replacing this recognition with evocations of pluralism and diversity that further mask reality, is a response to the terror, bit it has also become a way to perpetuate the terror by providing a cover, a hiding place. Black people still feel the terror, still associate it with whiteness, but are rarely able to articulate the varied ways we are terrorized because it is easy to silence by accusations of reverse racism or by suggesting that black folks who talk about how we are terrorized by whites are merely evoking victimization to demand special treatment.
Thus, I ask the following questions.
What will it take for white folks to look in the mirror and have an honest discussion about the killers in their midst, especially given the fact that two white men have now committed mass murder in almost as many weeks? Is whiteness, and those who have not transcended it, even capable of such an honest moment of critical self-reflection?