By Quinn Norton https://medium.com/@quinnnorton
This is Part One of a Series on Whiteness. (PartTwo)
“Politically, the Negro is the touchstone of the modern democratic idea. The presence of the Negro puts our democracy to the proof and reveals the falsity of it.” — Hubert Harrison, 1911
“I’m not saying that white people are better. I’m saying that being white is clearly better, who could even argue? If it was an option, I would re-up every year. ‘Oh yeah I’ll take white again absolutely, I’ve been enjoying that, I’ll stick with white thank you.’” — Louis CK, 2008
Contained in the struggle between black liberation and white supremacy is almost every issue that concerns us currently —
Surveillance, government control, privacy, security, maintenance of infrastructure — even pollution, environmentalism, and what has become climate change, they’re all there. Add to that tolerance of religion and non-religion, access to healthcare, dominion over one’s own body, the right of self-defense, the right of free expression, the desire for justice and equality. Each one of these issues is there in black liberation, and often explored at length long before this current generation was born.
This is no accident, no coincidence, because the making of black and white was the making of the world we know now.
I don’t think I was born white. I think white children are manufactured. There is a social process wherein neutral children get assimilated into the white race. I imagine there is something similar that happens to black children, but as I didn’t experience it, I don’t know much about it. This process is not contingent on the pallor of a child’s skin — there are plenty of pale people of color as well as swarthy white people. White beauty norms has never been the extent of whiteness. The making of white children has to do with how adults behave towards you, and others around you, on the street, at the playground, and the books you read and the ads you see. The white race is reconstructed, millions and millions of times, in each person’s life, growing up in America. And a defining part of that construction is inevitably a denial that it is happening at all.
When I was a child growing up near the beach in LA I was surrounded by people obsessed with getting a good tan. My first assumption, encountering the fact that black people didn’t talk to the pale people I knew, was that being so much better at tanning, they outclassed paler people in this desirable quality so much that they wouldn’t bother talking to us.
Like many childlike assumptions about the world it is adorably wrong, but it is a more logical interpretation of the facts than the insane truth as I eventually learned it. What is perhaps most interesting is the number of people who have argued with me that I didn’t think that as a child — that I never could have not known about black people and white people.
“It’s not possible,” I’ve been told, “because studies have shown children recognize the racial features of human faces!” These kinds of arguments have been made at me more times than I can count by fellow whites. What often happens next, if I ask what those features are, doesn’t belong in a civil conversation. But what astounds me most isn’t white perceptions of black people, it is that people are arguing with meabout what I thought as a child. They are not even arguing that I’m lying now, they are arguing that my recollection of myself is false. This is an incredible claim to make about someone you just met. It is just these sorts of claims, almost more syntactically bizarre than outright wrong, that white racial identity is based on. My childhood naivety offered me no escape — the world around eventually taught me I was white, and all that means.
This communication about race to children fated to be white is consistently bizarre. Contemporary whiteness in schools and neighborhoods is a collection of incompatible messages. Don’t be prejudiced against black people, we are told, who are poor and criminal. Here is a month we will study black people, and write an essay. We cannot openly criticize black people, that would be racist, but we will violently protect you from them, even in your own schools.
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