Understanding White

 

 

 

By Kyle Delgatty

July 2019
(UBC Arts One LA3, Prof. Michael Zeitlin)

 

 

A month ago I thought that I was white—that was until I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. In his book, Coates doesn’t refer to people who look like me as ‘white’, but as “those Americans who believe that they are white” (Between 6), as “these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white” (7).  As one of the people Coates is referring to, this was strange to read. I had to know more—so I kept reading. And after I had finished Between the World and Me, I kept reading. I followed this idea back to its source—to the essays of James Baldwin—to finally begin to understand what it means to believe I am white, and to understand the consequences that belief can have. The most important discovery I made, however, was how these great authors would have me respond to the idea of ‘being white’.

In Between the World and Me, Coates offers his thoughts on the history of race in America. Coates believes that “race is the child of racism, not the father” (7). He writes, “Americans believe in the reality of ‘Race’ as a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world. Racism—the need to ascribe bone deep features to people and then humiliate, reduce, and destroy them—inevitably follows from this inalterable condition” (7), but Coates disagrees with this perceived order. He suggests that racism precedes race, that “the new people were something else before they were white—Catholic, Corsican, Welsh, Mennonite, Jewish” (7), and that it was only through the institution of slavery that these many tribes came together and came to believe that they were white. Coates writes to his son:

the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labour, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies. (8)

 

I had never considered that the belief I had long held in being white came with such a violent history, and I needed to know more.

To answer the growing questions I had about my own identity, I dove into Coates’ source material. My first lead was the epigraph Coates chose to begin his third chapter on page 133:

And have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white.

James Baldwin

 

This is a quotation from Baldwin’s essay “On Being ‘White’ and Other Lies,” first published in 1984. Baldwin begins his essay by stating, “the crisis of leadership in the white community is remarkable—and terrifying—because there is no white community” (Being 177). Baldwin follows this up by admitting that “this may seem like an enormous statement—and it is. I’m willing to be challenged. I’m also willing to attempt to spell it out” (177). Baldwin brings up the many communities, the Irish, the Germans, the Italians, and all other Europeans who immigrated to America and how they “paid the price of the ticket. The price was to become “white.” No one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country” (178). Being white is an idea that only came about as Europeans entered the American continent, arriving to a nation built on slave labour. Clearly, then, the ‘white race’ is not “a defined, indubitable feature of the natural world” (Between 7). Instead, it is an idea confined to very recent history.

This reading led me to the next, a collection of essays published in 1985 as The Price of the Ticket. Here Baldwin reiterates that “white people are not white: part of the price of the white ticket is to delude themselves into believing that they are” (Price xiv):

They come through Ellis Island, where Giorgio becomes Joe, Pappavasiliu becomes Palmer, Evangelos becomes Evans, Goldsmith becomes Smith or Gold, and Avakian becomes King. So with a painless change of name, and in the twinkling of an eye, one becomes a white American.

Later, in the midnight hour, the missing identity aches. One can neither assess nor overcome the storm of the middle passage. One is mysteriously shipwrecked forever, in the Great New World. (xix)

 

This is something that I recognize. I know that my family emigrated from Scotland, but I know nothing about the place. I certainly wouldn’t call myself Scottish; I can’t even properly pronounce my own last name. Because of this, ‘white’ has been an easy, generic identity to slip into—because my ancestors paid the price of the ticket. In fact, the ancestors of every white North American did the same—they paid the price to become white.

The act of becoming white has come at a dramatic cost. The first cost paid was a political one, as politics and race have been tangled together since the first Congress of the United States voted in 1790 that only ‘white’ persons could be naturalized as citizens” (Ignatiev 49). Baldwin observes racial politics when he writes of “the crisis of leadership in the white community” (Being 177), and remarks,

I think that all the Southern politicians have failed their responsibility to the white people of the South. Somebody in the South must know that obviously the status quo cannot exist another hundred years. The politicians’ real responsibility is to prepare the people who are now forming those mobs, prepare those people for their day: to minimize the damage to them. (“Interview” 30)

 

In his final interview, more than 20 years later, Baldwin reflects on the presidency of Ronald Reagan, a republican celebrity candidate who was immensely popular in the South:

TROUPE. What do you think that Ronald Reagan represents to white America?

BALDWIN. Ronald Reagan represents the justification of their history, their sense of innocence. He means the justification of Birth of a Nation. The justification, in short, of being white. (115)

 

These comments came as a response to the claim that the Reagan administration had been doing less to advance civil rights than the administrations that came previously.

The Reagan Administration has been the exception. It has consistently shown an inclination in matters of civil rights to move in precisely the opposite direction from former administrations. It has sought to undermine the achievements of preceding administrations, Republican and Democratic. (Days 346)

 

Just a few years prior to the interview, the Reagan administration had moved to restrict the voluntary desegregation of schools. “The Reagan Administration argued that what was at issue was state, not local, autonomy. Localities should not be allowed to initiate desegregation programs that did not ‘sit well’ with voters in other communities in the state” (Days 341).

Baldwin’s responses to the politicians of his time remain relevant today, with the election of a modern president whose “ideology is white supremacy” (“White President” sec. i). In an essay following his election, Coates describes Donald Trump as “America’s first white president”:

Donald Trump arrived in the wake of . . . an entire nigger presidency with nigger health care, nigger climate accords, and nigger justice reform, all of which could be targeted for destruction or redemption, thus reifying the idea of being white. Trump truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific—America’s first white president. (sec. i)

 

Considering how the presidents of both Coates’ and Baldwin’s eras undid the civil rights progress of prior administrations for political gain, it is obvious how powerful the idea of race is in politics.

As a result of the impact of race on politics, of the American people voting based on the mistaken belief in being white,

the most powerful country in the world has handed over all its affairs—the prosperity of its entire economy; the security of its 300 million citizens; the purity of its water, the viability of its air, the safety of its food; the future of its vast system of education; the soundness of its national highways, airways, and railways; the apocalyptic potential of its nuclear arsenal . . .   (sec. iv)

 

These real-world consequences of race-driven politics mean that Baldwin isn’t exaggerating when he says that whites “have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white” (Black on White 177). In the world of policy, the stakes are incredibly high.

The Trump presidency can be described in the same way as Baldwin describes Southern politicians in 1961:

BALDWIN. People who are sitting in government are supposed to know more about government than people who are driving trucks, and digging potatoes, and trying to raise their children. That’s what you are in office for.

TERKEL. Someone, then, with a sense of history?

BALDWIN. That is precisely what we don’t have here. If you don’t know what happened behind you, you’ve no idea of what is happening around you. (“Interview” 30)

 

This lack of a sense of history can be seen throughout both Coates’ and Baldwin’s eras:

BALDWIN. They don’t know how they got into the chaos of their cities, for example. But they did it. Now how and why did they do it? They did it because they wanted their children to be safe, to be raised safely. So they set up their communities so that they wouldn’t have to go to school with black children, whom they fear, and that dictates the structure of their cities, the chaos of their cities, and the danger in which they live.

TROUPE. “They” being white.

BALDWIN “They” being white and their believing that they’re white. But they did it; niggers didn’t do it. They did it. Inch by inch, stone by stone, decree by decree. Now their kids are deeply lost and they can’t even blame it on the nigger, you know what I mean? (116)

 

This is the exact blindness to history exhibited by the predominantly white Americans who saw “the danger in which they live” and voted to “make America great again,” without understanding the violent, discriminatory history of how the country got to the point where it is today. Baldwin claims the same white voters in his era certainly didn’t understand the part that they played in the process of creating the unstable status quo. The Trump movement requires an “other” to blame, “but they did it” (116) to themselves, as part of a chain of decisions that can be traced all the way back to the first Europeans paying the price of the ticket.

 

BALDWIN. That’s what happened, I don’t care who says what. I watched it happen, I know because I watched it happen. All this, because they want to be white. And why do they want to be white? Because it’s the only way to justify the slaughter of the Indians and enslaving the blacks—they’re trapped. (116)

 

Baldwin repeats this notion of white Americans being trapped in his piece “The Fire Next Time,” a letter from Baldwin to his nephew that served as inspiration for Coates’ Between the World and Me. In it, Baldwin writes of white people, “they are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men” (Price 336). In another essay, “White Man’s Guilt,” Baldwin writes again on history: “The record is there for all to read. It resounds all over the world. It might as well be written in the sky. One wishes that Americans—white Americans—would read, for their own sakes, this record and stop defending themselves against it. Only then will they be enabled to change their lives” (410).

And that brings it all back around to the epigraph Coates chose for the final chapter of Between the World and Me, quoted above (“And have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white”), because that line continues, “because they think they are white, they do not dare confront the ravage and the lie of their history” (“Being” 180). And this is exactly what Coates and Baldwin suggest we must do. North Americans must understand history, real history—not the history of “the people who imagine that history flatters them” (Price 410). Maybe then the people who believe they are white can escape “a history which they do not understand” (336), and United States policy can gain a new sense of what came before.

Baldwin’s call to study history is an elegant solution. Armed with a new understanding of the past, politicians can finally fulfill their responsibility and “prepare those people for their day” (“Interview” 30). However, the more I thought on it, the more I realized that I was missing something important. I realized my mistake as I dove deeper into archived interviews. In a 1961 radio interview, Baldwin remarks, “the incoherent, totally incoherent, foreign policy of this country is a reflection of the incoherence of the private lives here” (22). This connection between the political and the private was the missing piece of the puzzle.

To enter the new world, with all its opportunities, my ancestors, and the ancestors of all North Americans of European descent paid a price. The price my ancestors paid for their ticket was to gradually lose their Scottish identity, and replace it with a white one. This new identity made them accomplices in “the pillaging of life, liberty, labour, and land” (Between 6) it took to create a ‘white’ New World. Baldwin writes that white North Americans “are dimly, or vividly, aware that the history they have fed themselves is mainly a lie, but they do not know how to release themselves from it, and they suffer enormously from the resulting personal incoherence” (Price 410). This is the root of Baldwin’s shock that “in this country where, after all, one is for the most part better off materially than anywhere else in the world: it is incredible that one should know so many people who are in a state of the most absolute insecurity about themselves” (“Interview” 33). The private lives of white North Americans have been left in chaos by “the storm of the middle passage” (Price xix).

Baldwin claims that as a writer, “my responsibility to them is to tell the truth as I see it—not so much about my private life, as about their private lives” (“Interview” 29). This is the root of why Baldwin describes himself as “a witness”:

LESTER. “Witness” is a word I’ve heard you use often to describe yourself. It is not a word I would apply to myself as a writer, and I don’t know if any black writers with whom I am contemporary would, or even could, use the word. What are you a witness to?

BALDWIN. Witness to whence I came, where I am. Witness to what I’ve seen and the possibilities that I think I see …. (43)

 

When asked if there are any white authors he would describe as “witnesses,” Baldwin lists “Dostoyevsky, Dickens, James, Proust” (46): Baldwin asserts, “this has happened to every one of us, I’m sure. You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discovered it happened one hundred years ago to Dostoyevsky” (31). This is the power of the written word, because through reading, “if you can examine and face your life, you can discover the terms with which you are connected to other lives, and they can discover, too, the terms with which they are connected to other people” (31).

As a talented writer, Baldwin recognizes the immense power that words have. Baldwin claims that,

Whites want black writers to mostly deliver something as if it were an official version of the black experience. But the vocabulary won’t hold it, simply. No true account, really, of black life can be held, can be contained in the American vocabulary. As it is, the only way that you can deal with it is by doing great violence to the assumptions on which that vocabulary is based. (107)

 

Baldwin commits violence to the white vocabulary in his rejection of the term ‘white’ as a delusion. Baldwin’s goal as a writer is to threaten the American vocabulary of color:

LESTER. What do you see as the task facing black writers today, regardless of age or generation?

BALDWIN. This may sound strange, but I would say to make the question of making color obsolete.

LESTER. And how would a black writer do that?

BALDWIN. Well, you ask me a reckless question, I’ll give you a reckless answer—by realizing first of all that the world is not white. And by realizing that the real terror that engulfs the white world now is a visceral terror. I can’t prove this, but I know it. It’s the terror of being described by those they’ve been describing for so long. And that will make the concept of color obsolete. (53)

 

With this last reading, I finally felt that I could see the full picture. White people, as Baldwin says, are not in fact white, but have been deluded by a selective history and a flawed vocabulary. Baldwin claims, “the country has no notion whatever—and this is disastrous—of what it has done to itself. North and South have yet to assess the price they pay for keeping the negro in his place; and, to my point of view, it shows in every single level of our lives, from the most public to the most private” (21). Publicly, it shows in how the policy of the United States is conducted, from Reagan’s attempts to stall desegregation in Baldwin’s era, to the ascension of a white supremacist to the oval office in our own. Privately, the situation is just as grim, as white Americans are trapped in “a state of the most absolute insecurity about themselves” (33) after losing their history as the price of the ticket.

Fortunately, Baldwin offers a solution. Baldwin pushes his readers to “re-examine everything” (Price xix), to “confront the ravage and the lie of . . . history” (“Being” 180). Only once the people who think they are white face the true history of the west will the American public life regain coherence. Baldwin then takes this a step further; in addition to studying history, he also asks his readers to study fiction. Through the likes of Baldwin and Dostoyevsky, readers can “discover the terms with which you are connected to other lives” (“Interview” 31), and begin to rein in the chaos of their private lives that was created when “in the midnight hour, the missing identity aches” (Price xix). But most importantly, through the study of both history and fiction, Baldwin asks us to understand ourselves. Baldwin writes “to do your first works over means to re-examine everything. Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know whence you came” (xix).

After a long journey, I have finally come to a conclusion, and I know my next step. I have to learn to “re-examine everything” (xix), to “confront the ravage and the lie of . . . history” (Being 180). If I “go back to where I started . . . examine all of it” (Price xix) I can know whence I came. And to do that, I have to follow in the footsteps of Baldwin, and write, and “tell the truth as I see it” (“Interview”29). It won’t be easy. Baldwin proclaims

I don’t think that, seriously speaking, anybody in his right mind would want to be a writer. But you do discover that you are a writer and then you haven’t got any choice. You live that life or you won’t live any. (20)

 

I know that I am nowhere near examining all of it, nowhere near understanding my white identity, but reading authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates and James Baldwin seems like a good place to start.

 

 

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. “On Being White and Other Lies.” Black On White, edited by David R. Roediger, Schocken Books, 1998, pp. 177-80.

Baldwin, James. “The Last Interview and other conversations.” Contributions by Quincy Troupe et al, Melville House Publishing, 2014.

Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket. St. Martins/Marek, 1985.

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Speigel & Grau, 2015

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The First White President.” The Atlantic, 2017.

Days, Drew S. III. “Turning Back the Clock: The Reagan Administration and Civil Rights” 1984. Faculty Scholarship Series. 1492.https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/fss_papers/1492

Ignatiev, Noel. How the Irish became white. ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 1994.