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In PeaceAble on June 12, 2020 at 4:44 pm

If any of my fair-skinned friends wants to begin to understand racism as a systemic problem in American culture, a good place to start is with Tanehisi Coates’ book “Between the World and Me.”  You will barely get started in the first section of the book before you will be confronted with two revelatory ideas.

The first of these is that “race is the child of racism, not the father.”

Think about that for a moment.  We know that race is a social construct, that there is no biological basis for separating humans into races based on external physical features.  Claiming that a dark skin is evidence of a separate race is no more based in fact than claiming that detached earlobes are.  But the implications of the statement are more profound than that.

The statement tells us that humans did not see color, decide that races existed, and then became racist.  Rather, we needed a reason to justify de-humanizing those we would dominate, and the invention of race gave us that reason.  And by “we” I mean white people, for who else has benefitted more than we have from the invention of race?  We have used it to justify conquering and subjugation, colonialism, genocide, rape, and more – a very long list of atrocities that were easier to commit as long as the victims were not as human as we were.

Which then brings Coates, and his readers, to the second idea.  Being “white” is a myth, an illusion, what Coates refers to throughout the book as a “dream.”

We aren’t, after all, actually white.  We’re varying shades of a sort of pink beige, turning more brown or red with exposure to the summer sun, and more pale and yellow in the winter.  But being white has become such an immutable part of our identity; so fundamental to how we see not just ourselves, but the whole world and our place in it, that it is the beginning of how we relate to everything else.  The whole structure of the canon of western civilization, its art, literature, science, history, religion, philosophy depend on it.  We measure human progress by its relationship to our own whiteness.

If we weren’t white, what would we then use to determine who the “others” are?  What other characteristics of humankind have the breadth, the scope of race?  If “white” did not exist, would black, brown, yellow, or red also disappear?  After all, those colors are as inaccurate in describing other races as white is in describing us.

We might still divide up humankind by ethnicity, by nationality, by language, by culture; but wouldn’t those things first require us to recognize the fundamental humanity at the heart of those differences?  Once we have identified race as the controlling factor, once we have determined the inherent inferiority of the other on the basis of race, then we can judge their accomplishments, their civilizations as inferior by default.  But if we had to start by dealing with all those things that humans create, it would be more difficult to dismiss their creators as less than human.

Calling our whiteness a dream has other implications as well. 

Dreams are more than just fantasies or illusions.  They are, first of all, associated with sleep.  If the core of our racial identity is a dream, then we are asleep in our reality.  And what happens to our dreams when we awaken?  To be “woke” is to have roused ourselves from the dream; to have left it behind in the darkness.

A dream is also either an aspiration or a fear.  When our dreams become nightmares, they express those things we most fear.  We may wake from them sweating, our hearts pounding, confused and terrified.  Leaving them behind is difficult, the fear remains.  When our dreams are desires, they give us goals, and light our way.  But if we dream too big, the aspirations can become traps.  If we cannot become all that we dream we are or could be, how do we reconcile that, if the dream is of our innate superiority?

We find that we need the dream, because without it, all our fears and aspirations are merely the consequence of being no more or less human than those the dream does not include.

So, I think that I need to try to stop being white.

But how does one, especially in one’s seventies, shed one’s race?  I’m certainly not going to dye my skin, get plastic surgery, alter my birth.  And those things would be lies, anyway.  If I am to be something other than white, it has to be real.  And it has to come to terms with all those decades of whiteness that already live inside my skin.

Baby steps.

If whiteness is an illusion, how do I step outside of it?  If it is a dream, how do I wake up?

Another point that Coates makes, one that I already knew but the context is important, is that naming is an act of power.  I would also call it an act of creation.  We cannot name a thing until we have knowledge of its existence.  And when we name it, we say how it is to be perceived, judged, related to.  We define it.  We say what its fundamental characteristics are, and what connotations we are to draw from it.  We say what is our power over it, or its power over us.

To define something is to limit it, to enclose it in our perceptions; and to try to imprison it there.  Our words for things are the first steps in creating and controlling our reality.

So, the first step in changing our reality is to change the names we use for it.  This is an idea that has long existed in therapy.  Reframe the experience, name the feeling.  We do not need to be the victims of our lexicons, we can take control.

I am becoming more aware every day now of how much of my perceptions of the world and my place in it have been founded in my whiteness.  Many of my successes have been made easier because I am white, have been expected because I am white, assumed because I am white.  And my failures, my fears, my shortcomings have been amplified by those same privileges, expectations and assumptions.

So, what happens if I reframe my whiteness.

I have, for most of my adult life, played with the idea of the mongrel.  I have often joked that we are all mongrels.  I have bemoaned, in my humor, the lack of cultural or group identifiers for mongrels.  We have no traditions, no flag, no songs, no creed, no signs of belonging or loyalty, no natural gathering places.

But it turns out that it’s not really a joke.  None of us has a singular ancestry beyond a few generations, insignificant in the span of human existence.  We’re all mutts.

I’ll start small on my way to mongrelization.  From now on, when faced with some official form that asks me to say my race, I will respond not white, but other.  If required to explain, I will say that I am mongrel, or perhaps “mixed-blood.”  Didn’t we create laws that claimed a single drop of black blood made one black?  So, I will embrace all the drops within me.  I will be them all.

I think we should start a movement – an awakening, if you will – toward the end of the white race; and the rise of the mongrel. 

Anyone can join.  Anyone who wishes to shed the skin that whiteness has trapped them in can become a mongrel.  But it is most important that white people go first, because as long as there are white people, there will also be the others.  And as long as we continue to dream our own whiteness, we will never awaken to the full possibility of being simply human.

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