This blog post started buffering in my brain after Joe Biden gave us yet another peek into his unexamined mind and identity. I hesitated to write too abruptly in observation of the fervent debate, particularly among Black folks, about how big of a deal we should make of it given the horror that is Donald Trump. The fact that we believe holding Joe Biden accountable for his undisciplined consideration of his whiteness is mutually exclusive to opposing the vile monster that is Donald Trump is poignant evidence of how close we still are to the plantation.
Black people do not owe Joe Biden a damn thing. We are not responsible for his electability, period and his being a “wise guy” was a reminder of how little work he has done on unpacking his whiteness as the pathology that it is. Joe did not just bring the nasty potato salad to the cookout. “Massa” was not just making a joke that we should lightheartedly dismiss. In his American white man skin suit, he assessed who was Black and who was not with the audacity that only comes with a false, yet well internalized sense of superiority. The same audacity that allows Joe Biden to criticize Black parenting on a national platform but continue to claim and take credit for the Crime Bill of 1994 as an effective piece of legislation. A piece of legislation he likely championed as a feather in his cap to moderate white people as he paved the way for his eventual presidential runs, two of which he never broke the top three.
Yet now, we are supposed to cling to and defend him like he is our aging uncle who has not done any real harm. Served up to us from a pool of the most talented and diverse lawmakers and politicians that we have seen in generations, by another elder statesman playing the old rules written by the white men in charge. Jim Clyburn was our Stephen in Django, narrating the establishment’s plans under the guise of kingmaker and telling us to just deal with it, no matter what wounds might come. Alas, Biden gets to repeatedly reference baseless stereotypes about Black people without ever making the same assessments of our white counterparts as a collective because God forbid he offends working-class white voters.
But, we are told that Massa Trump is so much worse, so we ought to keep our mouths shut. Meanwhile, no one is telling the 53% of white women who voted for Donald Trump that they should reconsider their vote given his misogyny and admitted history of sexual assault. No, we leave those women alone, allowing them to firmly grip their religion and pro-life positions as their justification. We do not send memes around highlighting the percentage of white people who did not vote. We put the burden on Black people to fix the damaged and poisonous roots of this nation. Upon force, we built it, we maintained it, we have kept its feeble, greedy heart beating, knowing all along that it was hobbled from the start and whiteness stakes its claim to it all with mealy-mouthed apologies and little gratitude.
Dealing with whiteness in America as a Black person is like getting one million little cuts every day. You never know from which way they will come, but you know that they will land, stinging and unrelenting in the way they take your breath away. It is a daily trauma from which you find yourself gasping for air, like a drowning man reaching for a sustained moment of relief that never comes.
I watched the video of the histrionics of the woman in Central Park with my mouth hanging open, catapulted to a place in time of hoop skirts, powdered bosoms, and manufactured cries for help. I could feel the ache of Emmitt Till’s mother as the echoes of white women weaponizing law enforcement reverberated through the decades. Watching Amy Cooper’s behavior triggered my own memories of how a white woman used lies and manipulation to activate her own power against me instead of taking responsibility for her misconduct. She wanted to be seen as a leader—those were her words– so instead of humbly acting within the boundaries of her role, she let her hunger for attention and control consume her to the detriment of an entire organization.
She and Amy took their maneuvers from the same playbook. We’ve seen it before. 1. Believing the rules do not apply, engage in entitled and inappropriate behavior. 2. When confronted on said behavior, become defensive, insisting that one is doing nothing wrong. 3. Project negativity on the person of color confronting behavior, suggest they are either angry or threatening. (Yes, the woman in my case did call me angry.) 4. Commence the waterworks and pity stories, building the narrative of victim. 5. Go nuclear by lying and manipulating, all with the aim of staying in power and control. All other things are expendable—money, livelihoods, laws, lives. To operationalize this way of being is to make that person completely soulless.
A friend of a friend left this compelling plea to his white brethren on his Facebook page. “Have our racial privileges, our entitlements, our social/racial narcissism, our racial psychosis, and delusions really benefited us?” Such a powerful question. I know one thing for sure. There is no more joyless human being right now than Amy Cooper.
Almost two years ago, I penned my own plea, But what will become of (y)our souls?. . . , reflecting on how debilitating the blind evil manifested from white supremacy is. The pressure with which that Minneapolis police officer’s knee leaned on George Floyd’s neck, deaf to his gasps for breath and life, came from a man either possessed by a devil or broken by a mental and emotional psychosis—a racial psychosis. To wade in the waters of such heartless cruelty, to stake a claim on such an identity, is to be dead inside.
The twisted irony is that American whiteness, this racial psychosis, is in part, defined by its own need to make sense of the identity of the Black man who he himself captured for his own means. In reality, white “superiority” is no badge of honor, no tangible claim to intellectual, cultural, or moral dominance. It decays to nothing more than an embodiment of the worst in humanity as it imposes its torment on the Black body and psyche.
In Baldwin’s essay, Stranger in the Village from Notes of a Native Son, he distills this point with his reliable elegance and fearlessness. These words are 65 years old.
At the root of the American Negro problem is the necessity of the American white man to find a way of living with the Negro in order to live with himself. And the history of this problem can be reduced to the means used by Americans—lynch law and law, segregation and legal acceptance, terrorization and concession—either to come to terms with this necessity, or to find a way around it, or (most usually) to find a way of doing both these things at once. The resulting spectacle, at once foolish and dreadful, led someone to make the quite accurate observation that “the Negro-in-America is a form of insanity which overtakes white men.”James Baldwin, Stranger in the Village, 1955
Nothing seems more psychotic and insane than trying to claim superiority through a consistently sanctioned reign of terror. IT.MAKES.NO.SENSE. The police officer maintaining his knee on George’s neck while he was handcuffed and begging for life MADE NO SENSE.
In But what will become of (y)our souls?. . .I also state that “It is only through the persistent dismantling of white supremacist thinking and being and doing that we can recover our souls. . .individually and collectively. It has to be a moment to moment discipline of examining one’s thinking and being and doing. . .led by the white people in this country.” It might be time to get a bit more specific, to rewrite the playbook, so to speak.
1.Admit when you are wrong. 2. Accept that your worldview or value system may not be appropriate in a situation. 3. Understand that you do not always need to have power, especially in the face of your brethren of color. 4. Internalize that your humanity and every aspect of it is not more valuable than anyone else’s. 5. Embrace the notion that diversity is not the opposite of quality (That one is for Stephen King). 6. Please do not insist on white mediocrity over excellence of color to satisfy your own comfort. 7. Read Baldwin. 8. Read Baldwin to your kids. 9. Prosecute the ugly head of white supremacy every chance you get. 10. Remember that appropriation, affiliation, and admiration are not identity.
Baldwin makes another gripping statement that offered me some comfort as I ponder how far we have really come from the plantation. He writes, “And despite the terrorization which the Negro in America endured and endures sporadically until today, despite the cruel and totally inescapable ambivalence of his status in his country, the battle for his identity has long ago been won.”
We are watching the empire that is the United States unraveling and at every turn, there is a reckoning over whiteness—What it believes, how it behaves, what it means. For all the ways in which the Black community has had to evolve, survive, mourn, and fight for our very existence, there is such beauty in Baldwin’s words when he says that the battle for our identity has long ago been won. We are by no means a monolith, but there is a healing balm to Blackness, to the fullness that we are, that endures and carries on. . .
It is in the corkscrew tendrils of my hair, the memory of my father calling his Harlem buddies “jive turkey” on the phone, my grandmother’s raspy New York accent and fried plantains. It’s in Jordan’s ability to fly and Harriet’s whisper in the night. I find it in Emmanuel’s nerdy love for Lord of the Rings and my brother’s obsessive loyalty to the Dallas Cowboys. It is in the tears of those protesting yet another Black life lost and the wonder in the eyes of the little girl looking at Michele Obama’s portrait. It’s in jazz notes, gold medals and gripping journalism. I see it in my mother’s ability to fashion anything out of a scrap of fabric and the smooth texture of a church hymnal. Alice Walker’s eloquence, Quincy’s genius, the hole in Obama’s shoe.
Shall I go on?