I guess it is true that humans often resist change. Hold on to tired old things that are no longer working. I guess we all feel this within ourselves when we need to change and we cannot make ourselves do it because things are comfortable enough as is or we are “attached.” I guess that could be what is going on with white people in the United States around the most recent request for change from the black community. I guess even having the option to resist change is a form of privilege. If it ain’t broke…well guess what? It’s broke.
It’s appalling to me the responses I see flying around the most recent plea for white folks to self-reflect. The rationale to keep up confederate statues because they are our history and we will forget our history if we take them down… Excuse me?
First of all, since when are people concerned about history and an accurate representation of it? We all know more than half of history is erased because the history we learn is the history of white men. #NastyWomenWriters exists to try to make a small dent in fighting the giant eraser that has been used to wipe out women’s realities, and that is only a start considering all the other realities that have been erased.
If people are so concerned about history, how about including the history of what actually happened to the black citizens of this country, from their point of view, for once. If people really want to fight for the truth of history, all of history, then good, let’s have a look at that.
Races were invented and we are all raced. This particular articulation and explanation of racism has risen to the top of the pile for me this time as something that needs to be understood by white folks. So if you are white, you are raced.
White people have come to think of race and those who are raced as all those other non-white folks. That makes it easy for white people to assume that race issues are non-white folks’ problems. But white was created in opposition to black. And race was created to make sure that white was always known to be better than black. The superior race. It was not an accident. It was a well thought out plan. So to be white is to be raced.
Racism is white peoples’ problem because it was created to support white supremacy. Therefore, those of us who are white who do not consider ourselves to be white supremacists must see racism as our problem to fix, otherwise we are ok with being white supremacists.
“Whiteness rests upon a foundational premise: the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation from that norm. Whiteness is not acknowledged by white people, and the white reference point is assumed to be universal and is imposed on everyone”(DiAngelo 36).
Here’s another way to look at it.
In an interview, esteemed woman author Toni Morrison is asked by a white man how it feels to still encounter racism. Toni Morrison declares.
“You are asking the wrong question. I wonder how it feels to you?
Don’t you understand that the people who do this thing, who practice racism are bereft, that there is something distorted about the psyche. It’s a huge waste and it’s a corruption and a distortion. It’s like it’s a profound neurosis that nobody examines for what it is. It feels crazy. It is crazy. It has just as much as a deleterious effect on white people as it does black people. If the racist white person doesn’t understand that he or she is also a race, it’s also constructed. It’s also made and it also has some kind of serviceability, but when you take it away, I take your race away, and there you are all strung out and all you’ve got is your little self and what is that? What are you without racism? Are you any good? Are you still strong? Still smart?
If you can only be tall because somebody’s on their knees, then you have a serious problem. My feeling is white people have a very, very serious problem and they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it”(The Pieces I Am).
Would it help us if we began to see racism as a collective disease or neurosis? We need something that big perhaps, to finally break this hideous veneer.
In her book, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Morrison asks us to consider our history as told through our literature. For the major part of American history, with some exceptions until recent times, the literary canon has been written primarily by white men and has not overtly included the presence of what Morrison calls the Africanist population.
Though all Americans lived in and with the presence of an enslaved Africanist population they only exist in the literature as backdrop, without voices or names and no reality of their own.
Yet, it is there, a huge presence in every book, in a different and unique way, often as a darkness, blackness, or primal fear. This Africanist presence is alluded to, a foil and backdrop for the white imagination to act out upon.
Without the Africanist presence there is no American identity, Morrison says. The Africanist presence and white Americans’ response around it created America: created white American reality.
White can only exist if there is the opposing black. And freedom can only exist if there are the not free.
“The concept of freedom did not emerge in a vacuum. Nothing highlighted freedom—if it did not in fact create it—like slavery.
Black slavery enriched the country’s creative possibilities. For in that construction of blackness and enslavement could be found not only the not-free but also, with the dramatic polarity created by skin color, the projection of the not-me. The result was a playground for the imagination. What rose up out of collective needs to allay internal fears and to rationalize external exploitation was an American Africanism—a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire that is uniquely American”(PID 38).
In Playing in the Dark, Morrison explores this issue through the works of Edgar Allen Poe, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Nathanial Hawthorne, and more. She reveals the ways in which the Africanist presence shows up in the text as well as the idea of whiteness.
She uses the term “Africanist” “for the denotative and connotative blackness that African peoples have come to signify, as well as the entire range of views, assumptions, readings and misreadings that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people…..Through the simple expedient of demonizing and reifying the range of color on a palette, American Africanism makes it possible to say and not say, to inscribe and erase, to escape and engage, to act out and act on, to historicize and render timeless. It provides a way of contemplating chaos and civilization, desire and fear, and a mechanism for testing the problems and blessings of freedom”(PID 6-7).
Morrison examines how the particular identification of what is an American developed out of this split in the white American psyche: their own identity borne of this particular othering, and mirroring. It is there in our early literature, in the glaring presence of this absence.
Read our other posts about Toni Morrison:
Memorials to the Victims of the Middle Passage: Listening to Woman Writer Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison’s Sula: Available to and for her own imagination—a rare kind of freedom and a black woman writer’s manifesto.
Toni Morrison and A. J. Verdelle: For the Love of Words—The Connection Between Two Women Writers
Toni Morrison’s Beloved: A Woman Writer on Slavery and the Haunting that Persists.
In her musings about Herman Melville and his novel Moby Dick, Morrison writes about the unspeakable subtext of that novel as being Melville’s repulsion around the arising idea of white supremacy. “That Melville’s ‘truth’ was his recognition of the moment in America when whiteness became ideology”(SSR 177). He was writing Moby Dick at a time of raging conflict over slavery and “conceived the final confrontation between Ahab and white whale sometime in the first half of 1851” when his father-in-law “Judge Shaw . . . decided the case that made the Fugitive Slave Law”(SSR 176).
There could not have been a place that Melville went where these ideas were not discussed in heated debate or a paper that did not have it on its front page. This was the world Melville was living in.
Melville, like other writers in the young nation did not address these issues directly or overtly. Rather, they wrestled with them metaphorically or again, used the presence of the enslaved Africans as a backdrop to act out moral and ethical issues through their characters.
Morrison posits that in Moby Dick, Melville uses the text to address this idea of white superiority which was arising.
Morrison believes that Melville was questioning “the very notion of white progress, the very idea of racial superiority, of whiteness as privileged place in the evolutionary ladder of humankind”(SSR 180).
“I would not like to be understood to argue that Melville was engaged in some simple and simpleminded black/white didacticism, or that he was satanizing white people. Nothing like that. What I am suggesting is that he was overwhelmed by the philosophical and metaphysical inconsistencies of an extraordinary and unprecedented idea that had its fullest manifestation in his own time in his own country, and that the idea was the successful assertion of whiteness as ideology”(SSR 178).
The place where white America became raced. Where we said yes to that.
Ishmael, the narrator of the book, is haunted by a “nameless horror” so “mystical and well nigh ineffable” that he could hardly express, reveals: It was “the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me” (Melville 178).
Morrison’s Playing in the Dark is a chilling, intellectually challenging, and eye-opening read, the above discussion being only but one small component culled from it. But the analysis of the disappearance and outright denial of the truth of what was going on in Early America at the same time that the treasured and lofty ideals we have all come to believe is our history arose, is essential. The continued lack of self-confrontation around this from white Americans causes us to continue to deny what life is like for black Americans today and moan and whimper when they try to tell us the impact of this continued denial on their daily lives.
It’s right there in our early literature, still very much a part of high school and college curricula. The absolute looking away and yet present and almost incessant infatuation at the same time. And it needs to stop.
We are living under a false myth in the United States that keeps getting in our way. We need a deep rewrite. How do we own the true story of how this country was created, what was really happening when the “founding fathers” spoke of freedom and equality?
How do we acknowledge that we are “Living in a nation of people who decided that their world view would combine agendas for individual freedom and mechanisms for devastating racial oppression”(PIDxii-xiii)?
Can we understand that THIS is how America was formed, with this gaping and glaring contradiction?
How do we own this, fix it, and create something entirely new?
I propose and call for a second coming for the United States of America. Instead of another revolutionary war how about a revolutionary peace? How about a re-declaration of independence that includes everyone this time? Overtly and decisively and inclusively and honestly. How hard could that be, truly? I believe most people really do want change. And so we need to change this story, this false narrative we are living by. We change it by telling the truth, ending the contradiction, and writing the new one that includes everyone. That is the true history that is trying to have its voice. How exciting.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2020
DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism. Boston: Beacon Press. 2018
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. MacMillan Collector’s Library, 1851, 2016.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Vintage Books, 1992.
Morrison, Toni. The Source of Self Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches and Meditations. Vintage International, 2019.
Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am. Documentary Film. Magnolia Pictures 2019 https://www.tonimorrisonfilm.com/