It’s impossible to talk about the state of affairs in this country politically, socially, and economically without touching on the subject of race.
While we can slice Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral victory any number of ways, at heart, his win was facilitated by whites concerned with America’s changing demographics and perceived trends toward godlessness, joblessness, and lawlessness. Even within subsets of the electorate that favored Trump apparently unrelated to the white/non-white binary, there are racial components to be found; among evangelicals, while 81% of white evangelicals who voted went for Trump, two-thirds of evangelicals of color opted for Hillary Clinton.
Since Trump’s upset win on a ticket more than tinged by white nationalism, white nationalists of his ilk have become emboldened by his success. A number of avowed white supremacists and individuals flirting with white supremacist support are on the ballot in 2018. Perhaps most notorious of them all is Arthur Jones, an outspoken Holocaust denier and American Nazi Party figurehead running for Congress in the state of Illinois. He is unlikely to win given his district’s propensity for voting blue, but the mere fact he is the GOP’s representative for this district (after having run unopposed in the Republican primary) is both chilling and telling.
It is with this mind to present racial hostilities amid growing mutual appreciation among people of different ethnicities, faiths, gender identification, nationalities, sexual orientation, and other identifying characteristics that I present a column by Talia Lavin, writer, extremism researcher, and one-time target of Milo Yiannopoulos’s anti-Semitism entitled “It’s OK to Be White, but It’s Not Enough.”
Lavin, who writes this piece with an explicit hope it pisses off white supremacists, expresses her opinions through a lens of having recently watched Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and seeing the juxtaposition within the film of David Duke’s call for “racial purity” with activist Jerome Turner’s recollection of the lynching of Jesse Washington. She writes:
The camera intercuts between the two speeches — Duke declaring the need for racial purity, Turner describing the devastation the policing of that spurious purity has caused — and serves, as much of the film does, to offer a lucid appraisal of the violent boundaries of whiteness, and the sucking, vacuous nullity at the center of that concept. “White power,” as championed by Duke, is the urge toward violence for the sake of the preservation of unearned dominance. “Black power,” as spoken by the young activists in the film, is the reclamation of strength stolen by an oppressive state, a celebration of physicality denigrated as undesirable, degenerate. That much hasn’t changed in the decades since the incidents that inspired the film took place in 1979. But in a time of social upheaval, the grim little soldiers of white power have re-emerged emboldened.
“The violent boundaries of whiteness, and the sucking, vacuous nullity at the center of that concept.” This is stark language coming from Lavin, but it may very well be deserved.
Firstly, there is the matter of whiteness and its boundaries. As Lavin argues in outlining it conceptually from a historical perspective, whiteness is an idea treated as something concrete, but it is ultimately amorphous so as to serve the purpose of those who wield it as a weapon.
For all the rigidity with which its bounds are policed, whiteness has been a surprisingly elastic category. Immigrant groups — Irish and Italians in particular — who were initially cast as ethnically inferior found themselves assimilated into whiteness over the course of the twentieth century. Whiteness expands and contracts as necessary to police its bounds, and keep its enemies subjugated. Even Jews, in the last decades of the twentieth century, found themselves conditionally admitted. The elasticity of whiteness is rooted in its essential lack of substance, its existence as a negation of the other.
Along these lines, whiteness is a tool that informs a struggle between those who have power and those who don’t or, as defenders of “white pride” would aver, shouldn’t. The inclusion of Irish, Italians, and Jews would therefore seem to be a function of wanting to deny representation to a group less easily defined by matters of adherence to religion and more predicated on observable physical features. It’s not merely about secularization, either. As Lavin takes care to point out, white supremacists have used the Bible alongside pseudoscience to prop up their racist beliefs.
Additionally, Lavin puts forth that whiteness as a concept is rooted in nothingness and is a thing solely to do damage and perpetuate fear and resentment.
At its hollow core, whiteness is nothing in particular: It’s an airless vacuum, bereft of any affirmative quality. To be white in America is merely to benefit from the absence of racial discrimination. To be white in America is to walk a path that contains no hurdles based on the color of one’s skin, one’s name, one’s outward presentation to the world. To be white is to benefit from a history of slavery, theft, and colonization that transpired before you were born; it’s to reap the harvest, without any effort on your own part, of centuries of religious and intellectual justification for violence. It’s playing life, like a video game, on the easiest setting. There’s no shame in being born white, but there’s no pride in it either, because it is by definition a category bereft of specificity.
Whiteness exists to punish blackness; whiteness exists to hurt those who are not white; whiteness exists to exert its own supremacy, in a great feral and bitter taunt against those it loathes. Whiteness has no language of its own; whiteness has no homeland, no cuisine, none of the markers that distinguish a culture worth celebrating. “White pride” — the notion that whiteness itself is something to boast about — is rooted in this vacuity, and that’s why it manifests as violence. White pride is a license to patrol the boundaries of whiteness, to inflict violence on those who seek to live, as white people do, unencumbered by racial prejudice. And the “White Power” of David Duke and his contemporary analogues is precisely this power: the power to inflict harm and to create fear. That’s what Spike Lee hammers home so well in BlackKlansman [sic]: If black power is about the reclamation of a stolen history, a stolen sense of self-esteem and worth, white power is about perpetrating that theft over and over again.
Lavin’s sentiments strike at the core of a reactionary set of beliefs that elevate the accomplishments of “western” or “Judeo-Christian culture” above all others and lament the supposed demonization of whites, males especially. To take part in white pride is to deny the existence of white privilege, and to do so in the face of perceived diminishment is to mistake the loss of such privilege for discrimination. The attitudes of white supremacists comprise an absurd worldview that helps perpetuate terms like “reverse racism.” As if America doesn’t possess an established history of the institutionalized subjugation and vilification of non-whites. But sure, affirmative action is wrong, political correctness is a threat to the United States and the world at large, and reverse racism is, you know, a thing.
As Lavin underscores, though, one does not need to be sorry he or she is white, but one shouldn’t revel in this either. The better course of action is to do research into one’s heritage and to be an active and good member of one’s community, both in the immediate geographic and global sense. Lavin concludes her column thusly:
If you are white in America, you have nothing to apologize for — but you have much to learn. If you wish to celebrate yourself, to feel part of something bigger, to express pride in a heritage, you can do better than the cruel sucking nullity of whiteness. Surely you were born somewhere; surely your ancestors came from somewhere; surely your hometown has a history you can plumb; surely there is music in its annals. Perhaps you can be an American; or you can be a Pole or an Irishman, a Scot, a German, a Finn, or bits of each rolled into a delicious composite that is you. Love your family, love your ancestors. Love where you live and your neighbors.
White pride and white power seduce by means of an easy solidarity, a call to arms against a formless threat, an appeal to inchoate anger. But they are essentially empty; they have nothing to give you but rage, and in this world rage is bountiful enough.
Work toward justice, and center yourself in the movement to create a better world, so you can be proud of the work of your hands, and not merely their color.
Lavin’s guidance here seems to be an appeal directly to the individual who would insist that the kinds of abuses perpetrated by slavery happened long ago and therefore he or she doesn’t need to apologize because he or she wasn’t there, or similarly, that she doesn’t benefit from white privilege insomuch as he or she is not super rich and therefore can’t be all that privileged.
White people shouldn’t feel a sense of shame to the extent it cripples them and prevents from getting out the door, beset by woe over the ills of the world other white people have inflicted. Rather, recognizing that white privilege exists even independent of class, that systemic issues related to race yet exist even after the formal abolition of slavery, and that more needs to be done by activists of all make and model is critically important. At any rate, compassion and empathy should be driving forces, not the rage which characterizes white pride and white power. As Lavin underscores, it is easy to be seduced by their appeal to “solidarity,” much as it is easy to tear others down. The trick, and the more difficult part, is building up others in the name of a shared identity as human beings.
As a younger Italian-American, I confessedly approach both the past treatment of those with Italian heritage in America and my personal connection to my ancestry with a sense of detachment. I have never known a time when Italians were ostracized to the extent certain minority groups are today, a resident of a bubble in which surnames like D’Addetta and Fragale and Leone and Napolitano are commonplace.
As for my closeness to my roots, well, I’m no stranger to Italian food (at one point, my father actually worked at a pasta company), but otherwise, I’ve associated myself more so with being “white” than being “Italian,” of which the majority of my ancestors are. In fact, I’ve gotten mistaken for Albanian, Irish, and a number of other nationalities from the European continent. Maybe that’s to be expected considering how many countries are on top of one another there.
Just because I don’t feel an overwhelmingly strong attachment to my roots doesn’t mean I am not critical of stereotypes of Italian-Americans that hearken back to perception of them as lesser-than, mind you. No, I am not nor do I know anyone in the Mafia, and truth be told, I never even watched The Sopranos. For that matter, I never watched Jersey Shore either, and I find that show way more offensive to Italian-Americans and my home state. No “guido” am I, Sir or Madam.
Perhaps I could take a cue from Ms. Lavin and learn more about my heritage. Maybe I could take a class to learn Italian, which I’ll note wasn’t even offered in my high school; at the time there, it was Latin, Spanish, or the highway. Or I could visit Italy. After all, my brother has visited there. Because of his darker complexion, that he has a full beard, that he was traveling alone, and that he doesn’t speak a lick of Italian, he may have received more than his fair share of scrutiny at the airport. Certainly, I would hope to fare better in that regard.
Then again, maybe I could be a more active member of my community. I’ve been involved with the local chapters of Our Revolution and Indivisible in my area. I also recently started a campaign to get a member removed from the Board of Education in my town for his sharing of memes with misogynistic language. This is not to say I’ve done as much as I’ve wanted to do, or by this token, enough. But I’m trying. As always, it’s a process, such that rather than considering myself “woke” (never liked that term anyway), I would say I’m starting to wake up. At any rate, it’s not about “arriving” at a fixed destination.
I’ll stop boring you with my personal journey toward cultural appreciation and political awakening. Suffice it to say, however, that I regard Lavin’s comments about rejecting white pride and white power seriously. It is one thing to feel the need to apologize for one’s whiteness or to stress that white supremacists are bad. The latter, in particular, is not really going out on a limb.
It’s another, however, and more valuable to oppose the attitudes that color white pride/power with action as well as words. I’m not suggesting we go around punching Nazis. In fact, I am explicitly saying we should avoid punching Nazis. Protesting “Unite the Right” rallies in a non-violent fashion and defeating white supremacist candidates at the polls are more productive uses of our time, and take the starch out of the talking points made by conservative commentators vilifying the supposedly destructive, intolerant left. At a time when skirmishes between neo-Nazis and Antifa groups can result in the loss of life, commitment to nonviolence and de-escalation seems more important than ever.
Many of us might commit to resisting the “blank sucking nullity” (thanks to David Roth for this turn of phrase) of the Trump White House, as we should, because it’s not going to get better. The larger commitment to resisting the “easy solidarity” and “cruel sucking nullity” of white pride alluded to by Talia Lavin is the bigger fish to fry, however, because Trump’s rise is only an outgrowth of the rage and trepidation he stokes. We can do better as a nation. In truth, we must.