“White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”– James Baldwin, “Letter From a Region in My Mind,” 1962
James Baldwin is full of zingers. But the ones I find most bold aren’t the ones capturing Black pain or rage, rather, the daring claims that White people suffer as much as Black people, if not more, due to race.
Not racism, no, of course not. But race itself, the neat little invention of greedy men desperate for a righteous excuse to conquer their darker-skinned business partners.
Anti-racist scholars and activists familiar with Baldwin’s work find comfort in how raw and comprehensive his written pictures of America are. How damningly he shows us that our history is present, that Blackness is a hellish condition, and that Black folk have every reason to be angry and revolutionary 24/7/365.
While those aspects of his writing are essential, it’s important to highlight the even grander conclusion he keeps coming back to: ending racism, and race broadly, can’t happen until White people want it to happen. That invaluable ball is in their court.
What I’m not saying is Black people and other folks of color can’t do anything about racism. That would be untrue and a slap in the face to a rich history of American freedom fighters. But even an America with a sterilized image and strong multiracial support for anti-racism work would ultimately mean nothing if the concept of Whiteness wasn’t destroyed.
White, by the way, is not a color—it’s an attitude. You’re as white as you think you are. It’s your choice.
Then black is a state of mind, too?
No, black is a condition.– Baldwin, “How To Cool It” Esquire Interview, 1968
As an American born to Habesha parents, I wasn’t immediately aware of race. How my Black and White peers differed in their treatment of me was telling.
See, to my Black peers, it never mattered how I spoke, what I wore, or that I didn’t know what a fade was until middle school: I was Black, and nothing could change that. Now it’s not like my White peers didn’t see my skin color. But in getting to know me, there were attempts to convince a young Alexander I wasn’t quite like the others. They thought of me differently.
My Black peers varied in how they thought of me, but Black was my state of being. Period.
My White peers knew what I looked like, but wanted me to “believe” my way out of Blackness. They thought I could let go of Blackness in a world ran by people who won’t let go of Whiteness; my Black peers knew better.
I recount the tales of an awkward Midwestern Black boy to say this: the dependence on race for a sense of self lies within White people.
Yes, the Black Power movement is real, and yes, we’ve grown deeply attached to Blackness. We’d be horribly lost in our search for a new collective identity if we were no longer “Black.” However, when the racial goalposts have shifted—when the Irish and Scottish became “White,” when the one-drop rule came into effect, when Arab-Americans were smuggled past the border of “White”—who moved those goalposts? To whom do these arbitrary rules matter more?
I don’t need my White friends to be White in order to enjoy their company or feel secure in my sense of self. But those innocent little friends of mine in elementary school needed me to be different from “them.” My White peers needed a “them” to exist. “Real” Black people, the ones not good enough for the gifted and talented program, the ones that skipped class and talked loudly. Otherwise, who were they?
Through no fault of their own, those so-called White kids grew to depend on an “other” to view themselves as normal. As the default, the unquestionable. It was one of the first things they learned about their place in the world.
As we march down the path toward justice reignited by the chaos of 2020, I don’t say these things to take the wind out of our liberation sails. In fact, I think these truths fill our sails: we’re not free until we’re all free, and while the system of race has scarred folks of color for centuries, White people are trapped by it too. Imagine needing an inferior “other” in order to know your place in life, with the boundaries of your identity constantly shifting to save you from an existential crisis.
Is that a purgatory anyone wants to live in?
Clarity for my White readers: celebrate the shit out of your European cultural identities, no matter how removed you may be from them. Be American, loud and proud. But fight to remain “White”? Ehh.
The cessation of Black death and mass incarceration are priorities 1a and 1b. However, this work is never linear. Working to help White people see that they, too, suffer from being “White” in the long run is crucial. To that point, a mic drop from James Baldwin:
I don’t envy any white man in this century, because I wouldn’t like to have to face what you have to face. If you don’t face it, though it’s a matter of your life or death. Everyone’s deluded if they think it’s a matter of Sambo’s life or death…they have been slaughtering Sambos too long. It’s a matter of whether or not you want to live. And you may think that my death or diminution, or my disappearance will save you, but it won’t. It can’t save you. All that can save you now is your confrontation with your own history…which is not your past, but your present.– Baldwin, “How To Cool It,” 1968