Meditations on being part of the majority

By Evan Baker Smith

This article is for white people. If you are not white, feel free to keep reading, but know that this article was not written for you; no, this article is for white people. White people, this article seeks to turn the analytical looking glass around on ourselves, seeks to spark an open and honest dialogue about who we are and how we came to be. It is a Discovery Channel expose on Whiteness, if you will, and at the same time an urgent call for us to be brave and seriously analyze how our Whiteness affects the world we live in. White people, who are we?

This question probably sounds absurd. Who are we? Although we often ask this question of other ethnic groups, we are seldom asked to answer this inquiry ourselves. It would seem that this is true because we are so apparently diverse, but in reality, we simply have not developed the language necessary to adequately describe Whiteness. Remember, language is not created in a vacuum; it is created within specific historical contexts of power. Who are we? We are men and women, rich and poor, rural and urban, religious to varying degrees, and of a plurality of political persuasions. We certainly are not monolithic. But given these various differences, who are we? Have we any commonalities unique to us? It is a difficult question to answer, so let us look at other cultures to see if we can find insight.

We all know what “minority” cultures are: Black culture is dancing, jazz and hip-hop, soul food, Baptist churches, Martin Lawrence, ebonics and basketball. Similarly, Latino culture is Salsa and Merengue (the dances and the music), rice and beans, soccer and baseball, machismo, George Lopez and Catholicism while Asian culture is sushi and noodles, studying, respecting elders and acting dutifully reserved. Of course these are all stereotypes, but for all practical purposes, these are important markers of “ethnic” cultures that we regularly discuss with confidence. Yet what is white culture?

Put simply, it does not exist, or rather, we have no words to describe it. Our Whiteness is at once an all pervasive everything and a profound nothingness. It is everything that is not “ethnic.” Thus, Whiteness is the central focal point against which everything else is measured. We, more than anything else, define for ourselves what humanity is.

Whiteness has come to mean good, smart, civilized and deserving; Whiteness is, in essence, “humanity.” Our Western values are “enlightened,” and because of them we are saved and seek to save others. Human rights and the rhetoric of freedom have become the new Christianity for which we wage crusades (to use George Bush II’s word).

In contrast, Blackness serves as the ideological pole against which Whiteness is defined. Black has quite literally come to mean, bad, dumb, ugly and bestial. We constantly refer to the negative as black: Black Friday, black sheep, blacklisted, blackballed, blackmail, black market, etc. Where did these terms come from? I do not know, but I would argue that they serve to preserve an ideology of white supremacy.

In between these poles, we place various other ethnicities, which we locate somewhere blackness and Whiteness, and sometimes off the axis entirely.

It is also important to note here that neo-Nazi white power rhetoric does not need to be prevalent for us to cling to our Whiteness. When we define Blackness as dumb, bad, ugly, and undeserving, we necessarily define Whiteness as favorable, something we are glad to possess. Blackness then becomes the negative affirmation of us, and forces us to hold tightly to our valuable Whiteness.

As the celebrated French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre noted a half century ago, the world was filled with 2 billion inhabitants; that is, 500,000 human beings and 1.5 billion “natives.” Europe had completed its domination of the globe, and effectively named the world in accordance with its colonial order. Europeans were now “Men,” with all the rights of Man, and non-Europeans were now “natives,” considered to be the burden of Man. Since Sartre first made this comment, a lot has changed: most colonies have become independent (nominally at least), capitalist democracy has triumphed over Soviet communism, and the technological revolution has brought all corners of the world into instant contact. But how much has really changed? I don’t know …

So white people, who are we?

You are you, and I am I. We are individuals, and our individuality is protected by our Whiteness. In other words, our Whiteness affords us the privilege of individuality. I’ve never had to speak on behalf of the white community. Conversely, what then is the effect on other peoples when we deny them the freedom to define themselves and name the world in which they live? As Paolo Freire wrote some 40 years ago, “To speak a true word is to transform the world.” Freedom then is the ability to name and transform the world in which we live.

I would argue, then, that as white people, most of us enjoy considerably more freedom than people of color. I would also argue that as white people, most of us are not entirely free, but rather that we are similarly kept unfree by the meaning-making class that denies us the right to name and transform the world. Since those who own the means of physical production also own the means of intellectual production, most of us whites in the U.S. are kept from our liberation by a system controlled by the wealthy.

If you disagree with what I’ve written, that is OK (and thanks for reading this far). None of us have been trained to think about Whiteness (indeed, there does not exist a White Studies Department at Cornell). Like all other endeavors, meditating on our Whiteness will take practice and patience. It will also require that we create new knowledge and language that empowers us.

Let us as a community initiate an open and honest dialogue about what it means to white and how our Whiteness affects the world. Only when we begin to understand ourselves more accurately can we begin to rectify past mistakes and work effectively towards creating the conditions of our own liberation.