December 17, 2000
10:17 AM   Subscribe

James Baldwin once wrote, "So long as you think you are white, there is no hope for you." What could he possibly have meant?
posted by sudama (21 comments total)
Can I put two completely unrelated articles/quotes together to give them new meaning too?

I'm sorry...but this thread stinks of flamebait.
posted by mkn at 11:44 AM on December 17, 2000

lol, mkn, no kidding.
posted by ookamaka at 12:09 PM on December 17, 2000

Could we please pack up the freaking white guilt nonsense and throw it out the damn window?

posted by gsh at 12:29 PM on December 17, 2000

Those of you who are condemning this thread should read James Baldwin. He's freaking brilliant.
posted by rcade at 12:37 PM on December 17, 2000

It's a provocative quote, but there's nothing inflammatory about my post or the linked article as far as I can tell. gsh, I assure you, I have less patience for white guilt than you do. This article has nothing to do with guilt. I'm not trying to start any arguments with this post, just to share some insight. If you don't find it helpful, ignore it or critique it. To dismiss it as flamebait or nonsense benefits no one -- except whites, of course.
posted by sudama at 1:12 PM on December 17, 2000

"I believe what Baldwin is saying, is that as long as you identify with a system that is based on domination - regardless of what privileges, concessions or wages of whiteness you receive - then your humanity will be horribly distorted and hope will be lost. I also believe that the hope Baldwin speaks of is a hope for a new humanity that works for equality and liberation."

Great article, sudama. Thought-provoking and eye-opening. Thanks for pointing it out.
posted by wiremommy at 2:02 PM on December 17, 2000 [1 favorite]

Welcome to the state of race relations. It’s hard to even have discussion about it.

I agree with Sudama on this. This article has nothing to do with the Limbaugh-esque construct of “white guilt”. Limbaugh and his apologists use it as moral reasoning to shore up institutionalized racism, which is documented in the first few paragraphs of the essay. Chris Crass (great name) is just trying to show people the patriarchy inherent in our society, and use that knowledge to end "white entitlement."

For the record, I wasn’t too fond of If Beale Street Could Talk.
posted by capt.crackpipe at 2:04 PM on December 17, 2000

Megadittoes to Sudama! And hey, If Beale Street Could Talk's the bomb, o Captain my Captain! Whatchu talkin' 'bout? On the real side, though, James' meisterwork is Just Above My Head, followed closely by Another Country.
posted by allaboutgeorge at 3:41 PM on December 17, 2000

We'll "pack up the freaking white guilt nonsense and throw it out the damn window" when a system that reminds those of us who are not part of the dominant culture stops reminding us that we don't quite match up. We'll "pack up the freaking white guilt nonsense and throw it out the damn window" when so-called "white" people are free of the burden of "whiteness" and so-called "people of color" are free to be, period.

capt.crackpipe: might I suggest The Fire Next Time?
posted by likorish at 3:50 PM on December 17, 2000

Yeah, Baldwin was brilliant.

I like the article's interpretation of the Baldwin quote (i.e., "So long as you think you are white, there is no hope for you.") But I disagree with it.

The author (Crass - what a great name) says "I remember as a small child listening to other children speak Spanish and I assumed that it was because they were not smart enough to speak English or if they were bilingual, then I assumed that Spanish was some sort of silly gibberish." And doesn't seem to recognize that it was being blind to his whiteness, rather than overly aware of it, that was the problem.

Let me elaborate.

I remember reading about an experiment someone did while I was in college. They got a bunch of women to look at themselves in mirrors and describe what they saw. White women would inevitably begin with "I see a woman with ..." long hair, funny nose, whatever, but "woman" came first. Women of color were different: "I see a black/Asian/Hispanic/etc. woman..." and then on to the other stuff.

This points to how oblivious white people are to their own whiteness, and to the power that comes with it. Being white is defined as the norm, and any variation from it is notable. Speaking English is defined as the norm, and variation from it is notable. It's when white people don't feel they are white that they're most likely to participate in a system that is based on domination. When white people recognize the importance that race plays in our/their experiences with other whites and with people of color that they are able to resist a system in which white norm=power.

Of course, this is not the ideal. To paraphrase the movie Bulworth, "everyone should keep screwing everyone until we're all the same color." Or something like that. In a more egalitarian society, being inordinately aware of whiteness would be problematic. But sometimes we have to zig before we zag.

And I don't think white guilt has anything to do with this.

Of course, I don't even know the full context of the Baldwin quote. Was he even addressing white people? Hmmm. Anyhow, good post Sudama.

posted by croutonsupafreak at 3:52 PM on December 17, 2000

Great article, sudama.

It's an easy subject to dismiss but it's a real one. As an anglo Australian, I was blissfully unaware of the inherent racism in the society I lived in until it was pointed out to me by my girlfriend (now wife) who is from South East Asia.

Racism is not (usually) expressed in overt hatred terms these days, it's become more subtle than that. Far more often it manifests as a superior attitude. It's often about trying to strip the person of their individuality, belittle them or treat them like children.

I should point out that she has no problem standing up for herself. She's got plenty of attitude. ;-j
posted by lagado at 3:57 PM on December 17, 2000

_Sister Outsider_ by Audre Lorde will do you a world more good than this essay.

The tedious white/black argument ignores so much and thus I have no interest in it.
posted by gsh at 4:28 PM on December 17, 2000

To dismiss it as flamebait or nonsense benefits no one -- except whites, of course.

Oh yes, of course, since being white means that I'm inherently racist because "Racism will always exist so long as whiteness exists."

What am I supposed to do? Apologize because I'm white? I don't know about you, but I don't particularly like being generalized. There isn't much of a difference between saying that "All Black people are poor" and "All White people are racist."

Of course, simply for saying something like that, I must be a racist because "white identity has been developed through the process of slavery, genocide and cultural annihilation." What the hell is that? I mean, really.

Every human history has had genocide, slavery, and annihilation in it's past. It's not a colour thing, it's a human thing.

No, but I'm white. I don't know what I'm talking about. Disregard the fact that being a white Polish/Canadian is completely different, historically and identity wise, than say an American or an Italian. Because both are white, and both are the same? Right? think I haven't heard any "Polak" jokes before?

My Polish history is filled with almost 300 years of oppression, at the hands of the Germans and Russians. I don't go around saying all Germans are evil and their whole identity is based on genocide and murder, now do I? In fact, I like a lot of German music.

Blah...this whole topic bores me. Rather than justifying the present by using the past, why don't people just use the past to learn from, and create a new better present and future. If you keep sticking your heads into the attrocities of history, you're never going to solve this problem.
posted by mkn at 4:32 PM on December 17, 2000

"Rather than justifying the present by using the past, why don't people just use the past to learn from, and create a new better present and future. If you keep sticking your heads into the attrocities of history, you're never going to solve this problem."

So what, mkn, you'd rather forget our muddled past? I'd suggest you do some reading on the Holocaust or on Apartheid.

The argument that many groups, nations and races have perpetrated genocide and oppression seems to me a cop out. So what, we forget everything that's gone before, and just hope the world gets better despite humanity's mottled record?

I don't think so.

I think that given 400 years (1400s-1800s) of slavery, and then another 100 years of blatantly institutionalized racism in the United States, half a century after the end of Jim Crow, African Americans definitely do not have the same priviledges as whites. Same goes for other non-white groups -- American Indians, Latinos, Asians have all been shafted.

Just because some white people didn't immigrate to the United States until long after the official end of some of these atrocities doesn't mean that they don't benefit from them now.

And guess what, racism exists in Canada too. White folks benefit from it there too. I suggest you read Joy Kogawa's book "Obasan," about her experience in Japanese interment camps during WWII and the legacy it left.

That doesn't mean I'm advocating white guilt. No offense to anyone out there who cherishes their guilt, but it seems like a pathetic and ineffective way to battle a problem as wide reaching as the ingrained assumption of white supremacy in much of the white world.

White people who look at the world shouldn't say: "Geez, the world sucks, I feel so guilty" unless they have a reason to feel guilty. If you examine your life and realize you've been an active racist then maybe there's room for a little guilt in your life. But otherwise, a more appropriate response would be "Geez, the world sucks, but at least I'm more aware of some of the problems and can try to avoid participating in some of them." Or, if they have more time and energy and are so inclined, "Geez, the world sucks, and now that I'm aware of it I can battle some of the problems around me."

posted by croutonsupafreak at 5:05 PM on December 17, 2000

Er, mkn, I think I may have misread your quote about looking at the past. Sorry about that.

But still, I feel as though you're saying "I have no reason to feel guilty about racism, and thus grow bored with any discussions of racism." (I'm sure you'll correct me if I'm wrong.) Whereas I think as long as racism exists -- and especially as long as people are afraid to talk about it -- open discussions about race and racism will be invaluable.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 5:08 PM on December 17, 2000

My Polish history is filled with almost 300 years of oppression, at the hands of the Germans and Russians.
MKN -- The fact that "whiteness", as an identity, encompasses Slavs (or the Irish, or Italians, or Jews) is a relatively recent development. If you don't want to think about the relationship between whites and blacks, spend a few minutes thinking about the construction of ethnic identity and how it affects you as a Pole.

Personally, I think the origin of the idea of whiteness and its symbiotic link to white privilege merits contemplation now and then -- it's not something I usually notice, which is something of the point of white privilege -- but you may disagree.
posted by snarkout at 5:29 PM on December 17, 2000

Yes, I believe you have cruton (and that's one problem about online communication - it's easy to misinterpret.)

Hey, I'm all for discussions as long as people bring rational realistic thought into those discussions. My beef with this was the whole generalization that "because I'm white, I'm inherently racist."

And you are right - don't forget history, learn from it - but don't dwell on it, and most definitely do not use any of it as an excuse for the present. If you do that, then you'll just end up in that vicious cycle of hate.
posted by mkn at 5:34 PM on December 17, 2000

I've never viewed myself as white. I prefer to view myself as human.

And, yes, Baldwin is brilliant.
posted by ed at 5:53 PM on December 17, 2000

being white means that I'm inherently racist

mkn: I think if you look at both the article and this thread carefully, you'll see that you were the first and only person to put forth this proposition. That said, I'm happy to address the issue.

This isn't the generalization it would appear to be. It's a statement which can be either true or false, depending upon the definition of racist used. If by racist you mean consciously prejudiced against people of color then of course that's a false statement. If by racist you mean reaping the rewards of race-based oppression, then there's no denying it.

(It was in this context that I made my remark about whites benefiting from a lack of discussion about race, which I stand by.)

It's a game of semantics I've learned not to play, but the point is that all whites are responsible for racism -- NOT for the racism perpetrated by dead whites long ago, but for the racist institutions and cultural norms and expressions which confer unearned privileges and advantages upon us at every turn.

gsh: I thought the article did a good job of discussing issues relevant to many communities of color besides Blacks. I'm curious what part of this discussion strikes you as overly black and white.
posted by sudama at 8:37 PM on December 17, 2000

A big trick in this, if you're "white" is to learn about the foundational ideas of "whiteness" and race. Where they come from, how they have changed, how people attempted (and failed utterly) to develop a scientific basis for the idea of "race".

There is no scientific basis for the existence of a "white" race, nor for any race at all, in the way we usually think of it - of race. It is nothing more than a social construct, invented (very explicitly, in the literature) to exclude others, and using a pseudo-scientific lingo to add weight. At times the "non-white" has included (as stated above) Irish, Italians, Slavs, Greeks, French Canadians, etc.

Race Traitor is a great starting point for information. For an excellent academic treatment of the subject, essentially a comprehensive historiography of racialist studies (see how big a role the American Museum of Natural History in NY, on the west side of the park played) see The retreat of scientific racism by Elazar Barkan. A tough slog, but worth it if you are interested.
posted by mikel at 9:12 PM on December 17, 2000

I read the article as being about Crass's awakening
to the privileges that he gains by being white.
Changing the argument to whether all white people
are racist is a rhetorical dodge. It shifts the focus
from how society is structured, something we can
observe, to the souls of white folk.
posted by rdr at 1:21 AM on December 18, 2000 [1 favorite]

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