Our movement, however, needs nothing of respectability politics. Accepting — conceding, surrendering, submitting to — that will only erode our movement until it crumbles entirely. Respectability politics is what’s gotten us into reliance on foundations and nonprofits, and elected officials and bureaucrats, and policies and programs that only benefit the most privileged and resourced members of our communities at the direct expense of the most marginalized. Radical, militant anger — and radical, militant hope, and radical, wild dreams, and radical, active love — that’s what’ll get us past the death machines of ableism and capitalism and white supremacy and laws and institutions working overtime to kill us.
The saddest thing to me is that this is probably a controversial idea. But I would much rather be a part of the anti-fascist software community than the libertarian free market community if the latter absolves itself of its culpability in the spread of white supremacy.
The specific dissonance of Trumpism—advocacy for discriminatory, even cruel, policies combined with vehement denials that such policies are racially motivated—provides the emotional core of its appeal. It is the most recent manifestation of a contradiction as old as the United States, a society founded by slaveholders on the principle that all men are created equal.
White people in North America live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality. As a result, we are insulated from racial stress, at the same time that we come to feel entitled to and deserving of our advantage. Given how seldom we experience racial discomfort in a society we dominate, we haven’t had to build our racial stamina. Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable—the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I conceptualize this process as white fragility. Though white fragility is triggered by discomfort and anxiety, it is born of superiority and entitlement. White fragility is not weakness per se. In fact, it is a powerful means of white racial control and the protection of white advantage.
I began to see what I think of as the pillars of whiteness—the unexamined beliefs that prop up our racial responses. I could see the power of the belief that only bad people were racist, as well as how individualism allowed white people to exempt themselves from the forces of socialization. I could see how we are taught to think about racism only as discrete acts committed by individual people, rather than as a complex, interconnected system. And in light of so many white expressions of resentment toward people of color, I realized that we see ourselves as entitled to, and deserving of, more than people of color deserve; I saw our investment in a system that serves us. I also saw how hard we worked to deny all this and how defensive we became when these dynamics were named. In turn, I saw how our defensiveness maintained the racial status quo.
In Mills’s view, white supremacy is a system of power and domination, one founded on racial oppression and which provides material benefits to people socially defined as “white.” More broadly, critical race theorists such as Mills emphasize the role of European colonialism, genocide, and chattel slavery in producing intertwined ideologies of white superiority and scientific racism in order to retroactively justify the (continued) exploitation of people socially defined as “nonwhite.” And here’s the kicker: Mills has convincingly argued that the maintenance of white supremacy involves and requires “cognitive dysfunctions” and warped representations of the social world that conveniently serve the interests of the majority population. These distortions and cognitive errors produce “the ironic outcome that whites [are] in general … unable to understand the world they themselves have made.”
This brings us back to Mills’s rather esoteric phrase: the epistemology of ignorance. The word “epistemology” refers to the study of knowledge and its formation, so an epistemology of ignorance would involve creating “knowledge” based on … a profound lack of knowledge or stupidity. Using fancy academic language, Mills is basically saying that whites’ ideas “about race” are fundamentally based on misrepresentations and distortions of social reality, but their “not knowing,” their ignorance, gets routinely repackaged as credible, authoritative “knowledge,” even as “science.” But racial ignorance is not restricted to white folks, unfortunately. My sociological interpretation of Mills’s argument is that racist societies socialize all of us to be racial idiots, insofar as we are exposed to forms of racial ignorance. Moreover, this widespread ignorance sustains the racial power structure, and the racial order, in turn, helps maintain the economic power of capitalist elites. The powerful always thrive on the miseducation of groups they seek to exploit and control. As long as everyday citizens are fed a daily mental diet of white supremacist ideology, historical ignorance, and disinformation, the overall power structure remains difficult to detect—and oppose. Thus, becoming less stupid about race involves discovering how we’ve all been socialized in ways that obscure the realities of racial domination for the benefit of white male property owners.
“One of the great perceived attractions to becoming involved in extremism is it presents a simple way of understanding a complicated world”
MAGA is a rejection of the foregrounding of the complexity, nuance, and spectrums of humanity. It is a rejection of pluralism and democracy.
For those who are tired of complexity and debate and politics, there are autocrats ready to relieve them of the burden.
Imagine an eleventh-grade classroom in American history in early fall. The text is Life and Liberty; students are reading Chapter 2, “Exploration and Colonization.” What happens when an African American girl shoots up her hand to challenge the statement “Not until 1497 to 1499 did the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sail around Africa”? From rap songs the girl has learned that Phoenicians beat da Gama by more than two thousand years. Does the teacher take time to research the question and find that the student is right, the textbook wrong? More likely, s/he puts down the student’s knowledge: “Rap songs aren’t appropriate in a history class!” Or s/he humors the child: “Yes, but that was long ago and didn’t lead to anything. Vasco da Gama’s discovery is the important one.” These responses allow the class to move “forward” to the next topic. They also contain some truth: the Phoenician circumnavigation didn’t lead to any new trade routes or national alliances, because the Phoenicians were already trading with India through the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Textbooks don’t name Vasco da Gama because something came from his “discovery,” however. They name him because he was white. Two pages later, Life and Liberty tells us that Hernando de Soto “discovered [the] Mississippi River.” Of course, it had been discovered and named Mississippi by ancestors of the American Indians who were soon to chase de Soto down it. Textbooks portray de Soto in armor, not showing that by the time he reached the river, his men and women had lost almost all their clothing in a fire set by Natives in Alabama and were wearing replacements woven from reeds. De Soto’s “discovery” had no larger significance and led to no trade or white settlement. His was merely the first white face to gaze upon the Mississippi. That’s why most American history textbooks include him. From Erik the Red to Peary at the North Pole to the first man on the moon, we celebrate most discoverers because they were first and because they were white, not because of events that flowed or did not flow from their accomplishments. My hypothetical teacher subtly changed the ground rules for da Gama, but they changed right back for de Soto. In this way students learn that black feats are not considered important while white ones are.
The Prosperity Gospel and meritocracy myths: morally convenient supremacy in 1492 and today.
A third important development was ideological or even theological: amassing wealth and dominating other people came to be positively valued as the key means of winning esteem on earth and salvation in the hereafter. As Columbus put it, “Gold is most excellent; gold constitutes treasure; and he who has it does all he wants in the world, and can even lift souls up to Paradise.”
A fourth factor affecting Europe’s readiness to embrace a “new” continent was the particular nature of European Christianity. Europeans believed in a transportable, proselytizing religion that rationalized conquest. (Followers of Islam share this characteristic.) Typically, after “discovering” an island and encountering a tribe of American Indians new to them, the Spaniards would read aloud (in Spanish) what came to be called “the Requirement.” Here is one version:
> I implore you to recognize the Church as a lady and in the name of the Pope take the King as lord of this land and obey his mandates. If you do not do it, I tell you that with the help of God I will enter powerfully against you all. I will make war everywhere and every way that I can. I will subject you to the yoke and obedience to the Church and to his majesty. I will take your women and children and make them slaves. . . . The deaths and injuries that you will receive from here on will be your own fault and not that of his majesty nor of the gentlemen that accompany me.
Having thus satisfied their consciences by offering the Native Americans a chance to convert to Christianity, the Spaniards then felt free to do whatever they wanted with the people they had just “discovered.”
Why don’t textbooks mention arms as a facilitator of exploration and domination? Why do they omit most of the foregoing factors? If crude factors such as military power or religiously sanctioned greed are perceived as reflecting badly on us, who exactly is “us”? Who are the textbooks written for (and by)? Plainly, descendants of the Europeans.
High school students don’t usually think about the rise of Europe to world domination. It is rarely presented as a question. It seems natural, a given, not something that needs to be explained. Deep down, our culture encourages us to imagine that we are richer and more powerful because we’re smarter. (It’s interesting to speculate as to who, exactly, is this “we.”) Of course, there are no studies showing Americans to be more intelligent than, say, Iraqis. Quite the contrary: Jared Diamond begins his recent bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel by introducing a friend of his, a New Guinea tribesman, who Diamond thinks is at least as smart as Diamond, even though his culture must be considered “primitive.” Still, since textbooks don’t identify or encourage us to think about the real causes, “we’re smarter” festers as a possibility. Also left festering is the notion that “it’s natural” for one group to dominate another. While history brims with examples of national domination, it also is full of counterexamples. The way American history textbooks treat Columbus reinforces the tendency not to think about the process of domination. The traditional picture of Columbus landing on the American shore shows him dominating immediately, and this is based on fact: Columbus claimed everything he saw right off the boat. When textbooks celebrate this process, they imply that taking the land and dominating the natives were inevitable, if not natural. This is unfortunate, because Columbus’s voyages constitute a splendid teachable moment. As official missions of a nation-state, they exemplify the new Europe. Merchants and rulers collaborated to finance and authorize them. The second expedition was heavily armed. Columbus carefully documented the voyages, including directions, currents, shoals, and descriptions of the residents as ripe for subjugation. Thanks to the printing press, detailed news of Haiti and later conquests spread swiftly. Columbus had personal experience of the Atlantic islands recently taken over by Portugal and Spain, as well as with the slave trade in West Africa. Most important, his purpose from the beginning was not mere exploration or even trade, but conquest and exploitation, for which he used religion as a rationale. If textbooks included these facts, they might induce students to think intelligently about why the West dominates the world today.
Whiteness and power call for civility while hanging black bodies from trees.
Whiteness and power call for civility while locking children in camps.
Whiteness moves the goalposts FOR BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS while demanding that the powerful and the power-hungry, not be the least bit disturbed or discomforted.
For nonwhite people, freedoms are granted conditionally, and could be revoked at any time for any reason. They are negotiable, temporary, dependent on whatever chemical cocktail happens to be occurring a white person’s brain when they pass us on the street.