In a society where material comfort is presented to us as the best we can hope for, can we even imagine Baldwin's concept of “greater privileges” beyond those that come with Whiteness?
The Charnel House
My toddler learns to take her first steps, and shrieks with absolute joy. Her eyes twinkling, she totters towards me. Her seven little white teeth shine through her grin and her little pink shoes splash puddles of gore with each awkward step forward.
At the movies with my wife, on a rare date night, our two young children at home with a babysitter. The film is beautiful, illuminating of a core part of our shared humanity. Blood oozes from the walls of the theater, throwing dripping shadows across the ceiling and pooling on the floor down by the screen. By the end of the movie, the first three rows of seats are islands in an impassable, stinking ochre lake.
I go to a bar to see a show for the first time in ages. I forgot how much fun it is to have a few beers and listen to loud music. At the end of the night I walk out into the clear, warm night, burp, and enjoy being tipsy under the summer stars. The gutters run red with silent torrents of gore, clogging the storm drains and overflowing onto the sidewalks.
All the wealth and material resources that have been accumulated in the United States rest on a foundation of land theft from Native Americans, theft of labor from enslaved Africans under torturous conditions, and ongoing exploitation of mostly Brown-skinned people across the world.
So as one of America's most cherished, protected children, my entire material existence is saturated with the blood of both the ancients and those who still die today in my name.
When an old acquaintance asks what I've been "up to," or a stranger asks what I "do," or a family member asks what I'm "working on," instead of confidently speaking my truth, I hesitate, wincing slightly, as I work to cobble together an answer that will honor myself while not alarming their unstated expectations of my answer.
"I'm an organizer."
"I do social justice work."
And if I'm having a particularly confident day, "I work for racial justice."
The power of Whiteness is in its silence. Our bloodbath has been made to be weightless, transparent, silent, and thus nearly invisible to those of us who are comfortable in it.
So to name Whiteness is to give that term shape, weight, form, color, and sound. To shape reality by uttering a word is to play God, and such play has never gone
The First Victims of Racism
For people who are skeptical as to how powerful White culture’s stranglehold on us is, Rev. Thandeka challenges us to play “the race game.”
The Race Game, [as described to a White colleague, has] only one rule. For the next seven days, she must use the ascriptive term “white” whenever she mentioned the name of one of her Euro-American cohorts. She must say, for instance, ‘my white husband, Phil’, or ‘my white friend Julie’, or ‘my lovely white child Jackie’…I guaranteed her that if she did this for a week and then met me for lunch, I could answer her question [what it felt like to be Black] using terms she would understand. We never had lunch again. Apparently my suggestion had made her uncomfortable.
This makes sense. It is terrifying to confront Whiteness because it means we’ll have to start seeing a living nightmare. We bathe our White children in hot blood every day and teach them so thoroughly to not talk about it that soon they learn to truly believe they can’t see it, let alone talk about it.
But those of us who have been taught to see again and to develop a resistance to unseeing embark on what may be a lonely journey. We find that many of our closest loved ones are not on the journey with us. Many are in fact invested in never even seeing that the journey is possible. And so silence descends.
Is that the society we dream of, that our ancestors fought for?
A society in which we can't speak our truths to those who love us?
In which we fear to convey the paradoxical sense of joy that comes with being able to finally see the truth, even though that truth is a nightmare?
Please assume: yes, I want to talk about the blood.
I have to talk about it. Now.
I can’t unsee.
No, it can’t wait. The bath is rising.
If we’re having a conversation and it doesn’t come up,
I am drowning.
These voices tell me, above all, to remember.
They say remember that I will always have to fight to stay awake. I live in a society that offers me so many sedatives, soft beds, fresh linens, warmth. To not fall asleep is an act of constant effort, and I'll never be done waking up.
They say remember to stay humble. White supremacy is baked into my being and is always, always maneuvering just outside of my peripheral vision. The day I think I'm done fighting it is the day I stop being useful to the rebellion.
They say remember that I'm not the first White person to do this, and I'm not alone today. There have always been White people who have rejected their birth culture of White supremacy, who have refused to succumb to the death culture that offers them material comfort while destroying their souls. Today, in the time of #BlackLivesMatter, there are tens of thousands of other White people alongside me who are waking up to our racial reality and who are showing up with their bodies and hearts in the fight to end White supremacy.
Above all, they say remember to love, even in rage, and to remember that such love is the only way towards the new world we are fighting for.
The World of "greater Privileges"
In the world of "greater privileges..."
- Instead of choking on blood, I'll spit it out like prophecy, painting impromptu pictures all around me. As a White person, my only hope for healing lies in first learning to see and claim ownership to my bloodiest works. This is how my White racial healing begins, and as I heal, I help to create space for the billions of people who aren't considered White to figure out their own healing as they toil under the global system of White supremacy.
- I will be able to be trustworthy...no longer an unknowing agent of COINTELPRO. No longer a walking time bomb of fragility for people of color, for women, for queer people, for everyone who doesn't share my velvet-lined identity as one of society's most protected children.
- I will live without the laughably delusional idea that I am positioned as a moral, intellectual, and spiritual authority simply because I was born into this particular body and context.
- I will get to reclaim my own humanity, stripped away by our delusional, racist society with the allure of shiny, material, soulless rewards.
every second I am not working to create this new world,
the corners of my diseased eyes are blooming with cataracts,
gently spidering out at the edges of my vision,
velvet white fog,
and behind the murk
gears straining and servos whirring,
hands pull levers and shovel coal
inside a groaning machine,
gas me back to my cloudy sleep.
Readers, please comment: what is your vision of the "greater privileges" beyond the petty identity-based ones that dominate our society today?