The last few days have seen the internet buzzing with talk about Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip, and the rant that has, as of now, seriously damaged his career.
His screed, which even in the best light was racially intemperate and ignorant, and in a more honest light, was flatly racist, concerned his overwrought reaction to a Rasmussen Reports poll, in which respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement:
As Adams pointed out, nearly half of Black folks polled either answered no or that they weren’t sure. To Adams, this means that roughly half of Black people are hostile or ambivalent to white people’s very existence.
To the Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh — ever looking to ramp up the absurdity for clicks and views — it was even worse: evidence that nearly half of all Blacks might be “genocidal” towards whites.
Yesterday I explained why Adams’s harangue, in which he called Black people a hate group and encouraged whites to “stay the hell away from them” based on this one poll, was both bigoted and so statistically inept as to boggle the mind.
But what I didn’t do was actually confront the question Rasmussen asked.
Oh sure, I explained it was a stupid question.
And I noted that it originated among white nationalist trolls and incel image board losers on 4Chan (I know that last part is redundant, sorry).
And yes, I explained that this origin and the trollish nature of the question is likely behind the way many Black people answered it (and large numbers of other people of color too, and even quite a few whites).
As many have pointed out, the social context within which such a question gets asked makes a difference: sort of like if someone were to ask: “Do white lives matter?”
The answer is obviously yes, but given that such a question is being asked against a backdrop of white backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement — and to deflect from addressing the longstanding reality of anti-Black racism — one might understandably think twice before endorsing this otherwise banal truism.
In any event, what I didn’t do in the previous piece, but want to do here, is offer a deeper response to the question, however absurd it was, and to make clear that depending on how you mean the question, the answer might well be no.
No, actually, it isn’t OK to be white.
There, I said it.
And if you follow along, though you may disagree, you’ll at least understand why someone could answer that way without harboring any hatred or antipathy for people classified as white.
It’s why I can say it, despite actually being white.
And yes, I know that to the white supremacists attacking me on Twitter — and these have, tellingly, been Adams’s loudest supporters there — my being Jewish means I’m not white. But actually, even under Hitlerian race law, I would have qualified, so make of that what you will.
Anyway, here’s the thing.
If the question is taken literally and at face value, the answer is yes, it is perfectly fine to be white.
No one gets to pick the racial identity group into which they are born. If one is white, one simply is and is due neither credit nor blame for such a thing. As such, it makes no sense to dislike someone solely for being white.
Your race is a function of how your society — in this case, the U.S. — has chosen to classify you and cluster people with your ancestry by so-called racial group. Just as ancestry is something over which you have no control (and thus, shouldn’t be disliked), the classification scheme also existed before you were born. As such, you can’t control it either.
And if the Rasmussen question were that simple, we could be done with it.
But it’s not.
There is another way to think about, and thus, to answer the question — a way that compels us to address the underlying issue embedded therein: namely, what does it mean to be white, and how did we become white in the first place?
Because unlike our being born into the designation or automatically inheriting our ancestry, that was hardly a natural process.
So, instead of emphasizing whether it’s OK to be white, what if we focused on whether it was OK to be white?
A semantic difference? Mere wordplay, like when Bill Clinton said the existence of his affair with Monica Lewinsky depended on what the meaning of “is” is?
To be white is something that was done to those who are now called such.
To be white is something that simply happens to us because of what was done.
And we can remain neutral about the latter while roundly condemning the former. Indeed, all people of goodwill should.
. . .
The fact is, those now called white do not descend from a long history of people who went by that name. Our people were not white in our European countries of origin (in my case, most proximately, Scotland, England, and Russia). That term did not exist as a pan-European catch-all related to ancestry, color, culture, or anything else.
Indeed, Europeans had spent the better part of forever killing one another.
The idea that we would have viewed one another as brothers under a common “racial” banner would have seemed unthinkable.
It was only here, in the American colonies, that whiteness was born.
Which begs the obvious question: why?
Did seventeenth and eighteenth-century scholars discover some new scientific, linguistic, or cultural sinew attaching all the disparate European peoples, such that the English and Irish suddenly were one, rather than warring enemies? And later, the Italian (North and South), the Spaniard, the Pole, and the Eastern European Jew?
Of course not.
They discovered a math problem.
Specifically, they found that the combined total of poor and landless European peasants — many indentured servants — African enslaved folks, and Indigenous North Americans vastly outnumbered the landholding elite.
And once the reality of that equation set in, fear of rebellion created a need to develop a concept that could split the potential (and occasionally genuine) alliances between these marginalized groups, to protect the interests of the haves.
In other words, whiteness was created as a political project to solidify the economic aristocracy’s power at the expense of the poor and working class.
It was a trick that asked those without means to make common cause with the rich solely because of European ancestry, all to maintain domination over those who would be deemed outside the new club.
For the rich, it bought them a buffer, and for the poor, it bought them a uniform, a spot on the team, however far down on the bench one might still be sitting, and however few minutes one might actually get into the game, so to speak.
It offered, as WEB Dubois said, a “psychological wage” for those still lacking anything meaningful in terms of actual ones.
And over the years, this turned out to be enough.
It was enough to encourage the poor Southern “white man” to fight for a slave system that mainly benefitted the rich. After all, they had the greatest property interest in maintaining the slave system. And indeed, by undermining paid labor, it could even be said that the enslavement of Blacks harmed the economic interests of the white poor.
But it didn’t matter. Whiteness made them feel so special they were willing to kill and die for its maintenance.
It was enough to encourage white workers to keep Blacks and Asians out of their unions in the early 20th century. After all, allowing them in would require solidaristic wages, which would flatten the value of whiteness in the workplace.
So even though a bigger union would boost wages, and an integrated one would make it harder for bosses to hire Black and brown replacements when whites went on strike, white workers opted to prioritize the white part over the worker part, to their own detriment.
Ultimately, to be white was only made possible by the devious manipulations of those who wished to hold down working people and keep them in line.
As such, to celebrate whiteness (as white nationalists do) is to celebrate a process of unjust domination and subordination, not only of the non-white but even of many who qualify for the designation but who have been disempowered economically as a result.
Even to respond positively to the question “is it OK to be white?” — though not as obnoxious as proclamations of overt white supremacy — nonetheless elides the process by which that designation became a thing in the first place.
And that process was most assuredly not OK. It was not benign. It was unacceptable, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.
Not to keep Scott Adams happy, or Matt Walsh, or the white reactionaries online who ignore the history in their desire to maintain that same system of inequality that has harmed so many for so long.
. . .
It is not OK to be white because whiteness was never OK.
The people called that are not to blame for the label.
But we are responsible for shedding it now in the interests of our humanity, which was the first casualty of its creation.
This post was previously published on An Injustice!.
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