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how to kill a god

(This is the final post in a three part series on what we talk about when we talk about whiteness. Check out part one here, and part two here.)

Although whiteness has global implications, my aim is not to write about this phenomenon in broad, unhelpful terms. I am reckoning with this heritage from a United States-based (and mainland-centric) perspective. I am processing my experiences as a mixed race person of color living in a country where whiteness has been nourished and crystallized over the past several centuries.

As has been already addressed, we must push back against the idea that race is inscribed in our genetic code. Remember, being “a person of color” is not a simple matter of skin color. In the United States context, being a person of color is a political identification that emerges from making an ancestry claim from a region of the world that has been victim to historic colonialism. Identifying in such a way is an act of claiming political solidarity with other groups that are treated in a racially exclusionary manner.

As we’ve already discussed re: blood quantum, Native American tribal identity has been erased through physical slaughter even as Native Americans have been forced into whiteness through legal and sexual violence. The idea of white people simultaneously, with a wink to those it has already invited in, summons “blackness” as a negative value, and constantly erases other non-black cultures, heritages, and peoples, orienting them towards a single dominant ethnic identity.

Americans of all ethnic backgrounds are affected by whiteness. To play on Shakespeare, some are “born” white, some “achieve” whiteness, and some have whiteness “thrust upon em.” Others, still, are cast far outside its graces.

(To be clear, what we name “blackness” also involves the subsuming of disparate cultures into a single homogenous group – and yet this relic, created to ease and further other-ness and conquest, cannot be said to be evil in the way whiteness can. Blackness was formed differently: not to crush others, but because people were themselves being crushed into a single thing. Therefore, unlike whiteness, blackness has become an emblem of resistance. We can certainly celebrate the holy spectrum of black beauty and center its power in our lives, even as we acknowledge that the idea of a distinct “African race” or a singular “black people,” outside of a political sense, is itself a fiction of historic white supremacy.)

imagine all the people

My concern with whiteness has less to do with biology than it has to do with a dominant social posture: what I am concerned with is whiteness congealing different non-black immigrant groups into a racial militia. I’m concerned with whiteness as violent cultural plunder, as forced ethnic amnesia – as the erasing of your family recipes, the standardizing of human language, the separation of a person from the land her ancestors farmed, the whitewashing of tribal histories and bloodlines, the flattening of nicknames, the shedding of traditional garbs, the assumption of European standards of beauty, the abolition of religious ritual and spiritual heritages.

(Much of this happens because the people who believe themselves to be white have had their own ancestral memories erased. Most days, I feel much happier to have my end of the deal. I prefer the privilege of being able to claim my people’s story, even if it has been maligned, over believing that I am somehow civilization’s cultureless, colorless apex – that I am without the inheritance of precious cultural history.)

As we’ve discussed, the most perplexing thing about whiteness is certainly its virus-like ability to defy categorization, to morph, mutate, and evolve as needed in order to subsume new hosts and continue to reproduce itself across as many populations it comes into contact with. Whiteness is a socially engineered pathogen and we, and certainly our grandchildren, are potential carriers.

The viral analogy is helpful, but in terms of a solution it presents a jarring implication. Can one extinguish a virus that is immortal, that resists every immunization, every genetic code, antidote, and education we have set against it? Can something so adaptive and inexact truly be cured?  In a climate of paranoia and fear, perhaps it is not surprising that some have posed as a solution violent action against its most obvious carriers, even as others have preferred alternative, more peaceable means of exorcism.

I’m asking seriously: how can one vanquish that which powerfully exists by denying its existence and its power? How can we blur a shifting shadow, kill an unnamed god?

killing a god

Truly, what are our options? Do we imbibe a sort of racial atheism, claiming that the hidden deity of white supremacy doesn’t exist? (We may call this the liberal “colorblind” approach.) Do we take whiteness utterly seriously, soberly and constantly naming its presence to the point of being accused of courting the occult? Do we humiliate whiteness? Dress it up in clown shoes and a red nose, trout it about in public, laugh that the emperor is naked, that it dresses funny and can’t dance?

I don’t have a complete answer. I’ve seen the efficacy of different approaches. Surely the solutions will need to come from those on the fringes of this system. This particularly means people who have been stripped of whiteness, and those on its borders: black people, Native persons, mixed race people, and those whose ethnic groups have in more recent decades begun to be absorbed into whiteness.

We may start, at least, by speaking frankly about the Bogeyman‘s existence. We can all begin to examine more closely how our own ancestries have been either crushed by or tricked into relationship with this force. Do not underestimate the power of self-awareness. Ours is a grand time for searching out these histories.

If you know your origins, claim them. Fight for them. If you don’t, if you’re privileged enough to do so, get on the Internet. Use ancestry-tracing tools. Send in a vial of spit and see what stories you were never told. Ask a grandparent if you can. Try to trace your ancestry back: if you’re “white” today, when, precisely, did your ancestors begin “passing” as white? I’m not asking you to “find your roots” in a distanced, clinical sense – don’t feel forced to cling to the shred of a foreign culture that means nothing to you. But was there another story there? Was there a time before you were just “white”? What happened?

One final thought. Working in tandem, scientists and biblical theologians have over the past few centuries proven themselves to be the two most popular tools used to justify white supremacy. It makes sense to start addressing these histories here, no?

If a theological lens makes sense to you, read some James Cone, William Jennings, J. Kameron Carter, Drew Hart, Christena Cleveland who explicitly talk about the connection between whiteness and Christian history. Check out the ByTheirStrangeFruit blog. There are awful histories here to atone for, and tools with which we might begin to move towards hope.

If a scientific framework resonates with you right now, learn the names of those who managed to pull off one of the biggest heists in human history: Blumenbach, Morton, Cuvier, Pickering, Agassiz, Gobineau, Huxley, De Bow. For a more sociological and historical perspective, read the unparalleled Ta-Nehisi Coates, Sharon Chang, and Neil Irving Painter, who will all remind you that race is an idea, not a fact.

Wherever you are, don’t think you have no role in this mess, that you’re just a part of the problem. Truly, people who can “pass” as white need to be engaging in this work just as crucially as those who cannot. Our salvation is ultimately tied up together. Whatever perverted racial thinking infects one directly, infects all indirectly – unchecked whiteness anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. For those of us who grew up without a strong sense of racial identity, let’s resolve to do things differently. Let’s name whiteness’ presence in our midst constantly, in constructive, fierce, and loving ways. And let us always, always be wrestling with the theft that has been done to us.

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