As a verb, “white” means to cover a mistake in printed copy. To erase that error. To start over, brand new. Blank. While mistakes by definition are the product of accident, a more insidious meaning also hovers. To censor something by whiting it out is to make something invisible to a certain targeted group on purpose. To willfully hide information.
This is how whiteness works. This is how white people work. This is how the system works. Whiteness is constantly attempting to cover its own mistake, the very thing that it can’t quite fully erase. Whiteness censors all information about the true heart of whiteness — keeps it out of the hands of people that have the most to gain from exposing the truth. And that group often includes white people themselves. We’ve bulldozed history, burned towns, murdered the best and brightest just to keep the secret.
The big secret at the center of whiteness is that there’s no real secret to keep. Whiteness is an empty category. There is nothing there. A fiction. A fabrication. Whiteness maintains its power over people by concealing this fact, by literally whiting it out. Exalting mediocrity to holy supremacy and cutting the tongues out of those that disagree. There is absolutely no reason that white people should be born with privilege, power, default acceptance and recognition. And yet it happens. The status quo keeps on quo’ing. Whiteness keeps working. Whiteness keeps bestowing unearned privilege and wealth on the very same people who say they’ve worked the hardest. Bullshit. But what is any amount of nothing covered in bullshit? Still just a pile of shit on a secret. And the secret stays hidden. After all, no one wants to closely examine shit.
I’m a white man. Growing up, every where I looked I more or less saw myself reflected in the world around me. At school, in my neighborhood, at the movies, in books, on television, on the radio. I never had to look far to see or imagine people that looked just like me. And I was comfortable. As I got older, I came out as gay and it still wasn’t that hard to find myself reflected in the world. It took a bit more digging, but I only ever had to dig to shallow depths. And even when those reflections didn’t completely capture my own feelings or experience, they were abundant.
A white male student of mine once told me (and the entire class) that reverse racism exists because he once walked through a neighborhood in which he as a white man appeared to be the minority. The words he chose to communicate his experience reeked of the bullshit covering his own secret. He said that certain people shouted things at him as he walked and I have the feeling these were embellishments for effect. His point though, the one he was using to prove his whole reverse racist fabrication, was that ultimately he felt uncomfortable. As a white man. Around black people. Of course this is the distilled version — never the words he would have used. Yet, the meaning behind the story remains the same.
“You, though,” I calmly told him, “at any moment, could have just left. And you ultimately must have done just that because here you are in this classroom. One that is majority white nonetheless. You have the choice and privilege to be around people that look like you (i.e. people you feel comfortable around) at every turn. Not everyone can say that same thing. That’s the difference.” He glared at me intensely and didn’t say another word for pretty much the entire semester.
We need to make more white people uncomfortable. We need to make white people uncomfortable more of the time. We need to decenter whiteness so living in a diverse world does not equal discomfort for anyone. It takes white people literally one second of not seeing themselves reflected for them to mount a campaign against the world claiming they have been victimized. Yet, white people have been demanding people of color identify through whiteness for centuries. No questions allowed. Just do it.
On Twitter, some woefully ignorant people expressed their discomfort with the fact that NBC was putting on a live production of the musical The Wiz. Despite The Wiz being around for more than 40 years now as a retelling of the all-white The Wizard of Oz, one that seeks to redress the erasure of black experience, these people shouted reverse racism. “If there’s no white character at the center, how do we even make sense of this story?” was their subtext. “It’s just not fair,” they all shouted.
Being uncomfortable is a skill we white people need to practice with all the urgency in the world. Little by little, discomfort turns to normalcy after all, and normalcy does not include maintaining the secret of whiteness. This is not about ignoring race and difference. It’s about embracing them, not erasing them — holding them all closer because our differences are what make us interesting people. And we are more different within the groups that seem to be our biggest divisions than we are across them. But we must work across them to find our own similarities; to celebrate our own similarities. Learn from each other’s differences. Audre Lorde told us this. It’s not easy. She told us it wouldn’t be easy.
In her autobiography Dust Tracks On A Road, Zora Neale Hurston tells the reader about the way, as a child, she used to believe that the moon shone on her directly. That its light followed her wherever she went. One day she confessed this to a childhood playmate who said that no, the moon followed her instead, not Hurston at all; and it couldn’t possibly be following both of them. Hurston said that realizing that contradiction “was my earliest conscious hint that the world didn’t tilt under my foot-falls, nor careen over one-sided just to make me glad.”
This difficult truth is learned early on for all those that don’t see themselves readily reflected in pop culture and society — minute by minute, day by day. White people haven’t learned this lesson. It’s evident in the reactions to the tiniest absence of whiteness in representations. White people need to learn this lesson and it won’t happen if we stay passive viewers. We have to be active in our own education. We have to be active in our discomfort, and critical as we sit with/in it. We’ve been shielded by our secret for too long. After all, there’s no substance to our secret. So let’s mark that, like a tattoo. Let’s cross it out; draw a line across the nothingness. Let’s take a marker and scribble over and through the secret, not hide it in blank white margins of the page. Let’s leave a messy reminder that we have in fact learned from our previous omissions, our previous concealments. Let’s tell all our secrets and hope that we can be forgiven...