Monday, September 07, 2020

Racism Like Marriage? Marriage Is A Relation Among Men For Which Women Are The Means

counterpunch |  One learns what it means to be white from other white people. It comes in stories and warnings and descriptions as part of childhood. Most of those stories are about black people. For white racialized consciousness, black or brown people become characters in a system of narratives, anecdotes, and images. In later life, white people relate to black people through those stories. And they relate to other white people who see those stories the same way. They enter into friendships and find social residence in their common understanding language and attitudes of those stories. In effect, it is not black people they relate to as they become white, but the white people who tell them the stories, and to their a white community.

In sum, racism is not a relation between white people and black. It is a relation between white people for which “black people” are the means. (As Simone de Beauvoir used to say in a parallel vein, marriage is a relation between men for which women are the means.) How is a white person to talk about race if they look at it as a black-white relation?

There is no reciprocity with respect to black people. The power, gratuitous hostility, domination, inferiorization, patronizing attitudes, etc. that characterize racism only go in one direction. The stories are just there to teach white people how to do it. Violence also only goes in one direction. White people kill, harass, patronize, and renarrativize black people as part of racializing them. They know they are dealing from the bottom of the deck. It is a power given them by white supremacist institutionalities. Thus, racism provides the terms by which white people can take each for granted.

When black people appear to reciprocate, to fight back, to scorn, to ignore, to placate, those are not gestures of violence but of self-defense and possibly rebellion. When done individually, the deck is stacked against them.

If racism is a form of street-level solidarity among whites, it will often be enforced by various means, even those of violence. The solidarism among segregationists, for instance, can take the form of enlistment to action, sometimes as a racializing project, and sometimes as “behavior modification.” Against the segregationists, the liberals argue that a hard exclusionary stance against black people will only cause trouble and rebellion. The better path is to integrate with its subtle long-range stratifications. Both see themselves looking out for the stability of white society, while preserving different forms of black subordination.

Both segregationists and liberals are fulfilling duties of membership in whiteness. And neither will disown it. Perhaps they refused to hear Kaepernick’s gesture of revolt out of a premonition that it would require them to deny their whiteness. But that is not the question. If one learns one’s whiteness from other white people, from whom could one learn to unlearn it?

In closing, we might mention one great vulnerability in whiteness, the esthetic dimension. It resides in the recognition that the difference in color between people is actually beautiful. The contrast between a white arm and a dark brown one set alongside each other is imminently pleasing if seen in its reality, free of the imposition of “good vs. evil.” The early colonists in Jamestown saw this immediately when the first Africans arrived in 1619. The colony quickly tried three times to outlaw mixed marriages, each time with harsher penalties. And each time it failed miserably. (Cf. Steve Martinot, The Rule of Racialization, Temple UP, 2003, pp 54-57)


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