Rethinking White Identity
I started writing a piece about Rachel Dolezal a few days after her life become the topic of discussion. Her case allowed me to pick from low-hanging fruit, and address elements of identity politics in the US that have troubled me for some time. Before I could finish my thoughts, the terrorist attack on a black church in Charleston resulted in the deaths of 9 African Americans.
While radically different, both cases embodied a recurring conversation I have had over the last decade: what does it mean to be white? When problems in the black community are brought up, conservatives are quick to point out that there is a crisis in the black family and black society. But the Dolezal and Charleston examples point towards a significant problem in white America, specifically in how we see ourselves.
This piece is not intended to give a clear definition and vision for a positive white identity, but further a conversation I first engaged with 10 years ago. Some argue that trying to build a positive white identity is impossible; “whiteness” as it has come to be understood in the US is inherently racist and supremacist. Others argue that we shouldn’t be building a white identity, as it entails a construct disconnected from any specific European culture. While there may be truth in those assessments, they are defeating for a number of reasons.
First, a specific culture has developed in the US (and Europe to a lesser degree) that transcends any specific national-ethnic identity. Many American whites do not have a direct cultural connection to their ancestral homelands. They may retain some of the cursory traditions inherited from their forefathers, but this alone does not make them a member of that ethnic community. I was reminded of this on some of my recent trips to Flanders to visit family. My father is a first generation American, and as his parents were the only members of the family to move to the US, most of our relatives are still in Belgium. While my stateside family continues to incorporate many Flemish traditions and mannerisms in our daily life, my Flemish kin affirm that I come across as very American to them. I can define myself along a specific ethnic community in America, but the reality is I am removed from that culture and tradition.
Second, I believe there is a longing for an identity among many white Americans that is not satisfied merely by being American. When I was working towards building a socialist utopia in my youth, I abhorred any expression of individualized ethnic identity. To create a society free of capitalism and racism, we would have to throw aside our specific cultures and recognize that we were all workers with a shared vision and interests. As this was the late 90s, my vision of the revolution was already outdated, as many on the post-modern Left had long recognized the inescapable role our identities had on our daily cultural practices.
Third, the far-Right is conscripting minds more actively and effectively than at any time in my conscious life. The network of “racially conscious” websites is too numerous to catalogue, but it is clear why Radix Journal and Counter-Currents continue to grow and exert influence. They are engaging, contrarian, and academic in their approach. By writing about race in a way long construed by mainstream conservatives, they are tapping into a longing for identity that Republican rhetoric about family values, taxes, and free trade do not satisfy. Even in a year that has seen the conversation on race encompass a slew of culturally significant events, American conservatives maintain that any discussion of the subject gratuitous. We are all Americans in their opinion, and to define oneself on any ethnic or racial identity is inherently divisive.
This criticism of identity politics is not exclusive to conservative circles. The recent disruption of a Bernie Sander’s rally by Black Lives Matter activists resulted in many white progressives acting perplexed and angry that their message of economic justice was being subverted by identity politics.
Unfortunately, the only people talking about white identity in a positive sense are activists on the far-Right. This leaves white Americans looking for a discussion or affirmation of their own identity exclusively in the realm of these individuals. The awakening of his “racial consciousness” inspired Dylann Roof’s terrorist attack; we cannot allow the far-Right to monopolize the conversation on what being conscious of one’s race means.
Those of us on the Left have to come to terms with our own identities, and discuss them openly, if we hope to take momentum out of the radical Right’s sails.
There is a wealth of literature about “positive white identity” in a slew of academic journals published over the last few decades. Unfortunately, I feel the identities conjured by these academics lacking and negative in their conception of what “white” necessitates.
Susan Goldberg and Cameron Levin wrote an influential piece in the 1990s called Towards a Radical White Identity. While engaging, their ultimate definition of white identity is almost exclusively built on one intended to fight racism and white supremacy. While this political goal is laudable, making it all-encompesing center falls into the same problems Universalist ideologies from last century had when devising identity. Building a political identity may be an aspect of personal distinctiveness, yet culture is much broader and varied than a specific ideological stance. This specific vision of a white identity excludes those who do not share a specific political vision, thus unhelpful when identifying a wider cultural and ethnic identity.
Additionally, creating a white identity almost exclusively on anti-racist political grounds is both a response and symptom of a specific problem. Minority activists are right to argue that what is often defined as “normal,” “average,” and “customary” is often indistinguishable from white customs and traditions. This universalizing of European white practices has a perverse effect. Whites should recognize that there are many privileges that come with their place in American society, but also that we have a distinct culture and traditions that are dissimilar from other communities.
Goldberg and Levin write:
“Often we have witnessed conscious white people who are aware of and understand racism but deny that they are white because of the guilt and shame associated with what it means to be white in the United States.”
I can’t help but see this sentiment shared by activists like Dolezal and others like her. One can excuse their distaste for “whiteness” when one considers what is often celebrated as its traditions. Putting aside racial violence and supremacist, “positive” elements of our culture are often shallow and deficient. A few months back, a Utah baseball team received Internet scorn for planning a “Caucasian Culture Night,” which entailed little more than serving hamburgers and showing episodes of the sitcom Friends. When this type of meaninglessness is demarcated the cornerstone of our identity, it is no wonder many whites simply disassociate.
I don’t have a manifesto as to what a positive white identity looks like. The upheaval in racial politics over the last year should provide an ample backdrop for white Americans to discuss openly what our identity actually is. Perhaps it is time left-leaning whites participate in a similar post-Modern metapolitical discourse that other identity activists have been conducting for decades. If we avoid it, we cede the ground to activists on the Right, who are more than willing to propagate their construct of identity.
(Image: Van Leyden: The Chess Players – c.1510)