How the fear of losing whiteness gave us Trump, but losing it sets free
As a Black person in Trump’s America, it can be enticing to assume the persistence of white violence is due only to the continued ignorance and miseducation of the people who enact it. The solution is so much easier to embrace if the problem is just that white people don’t know any better.
This is the same assumption grounding the liberal narrative that poor white folks who vote against economic policies seemingly beneficial to themselves are “voting against their own interest.” It suggests a bargain with whiteness should be sought, oftentimes translating into appeals to the “white” working class. If we could somehow open their eyes to the truth, the story goes, we could win them over and coalesce against the ruling oligarchy which oppresses us all.
But though whiteness is often illogical, it is not senseless. The truth is, whiteness is in the interest of all white people—including the poor—in significant ways, and we should not assume they do not know this. The only thing unique to the concerns of the white faction of the working class is whiteness. The loss of whiteness would have devastating consequences for how all people who hold onto that social position are conceived.
White peoples’ deep commitment to rejecting these very real consequences is in part exemplified in a new study by GenForward, a survey of the Black Youth Project at the University of Chicago with the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The first-of-its-kind poll pays special attention to young adults of color in order to highlight the intersectional issues affecting millennials.
In the post-election report, the authors suggest what they have deemed feelings of “white vulnerability” are one of the main driving forces behind young white adults’ support for the president-elect’s xenophobic, sexist, white nationalist messages. They measured “white vulnerability” by gauging whether white respondents agreed with the statements: being white hurts in today’s society, whites are economically losing ground today compared to other racial and ethnic groups, and discrimination against whites is today as big a problem as discrimination against Blacks and other minorities.
The survey found “respondents with high levels of white vulnerability were estimated to be about 46 percentage points more likely to support Trump than respondents with low levels of white vulnerability.” It also found that “perceptions of white vulnerability overwhelms elements of both racial resentment and sexism when analyzed together.” The findings not only imply feeling one’s social status as a white person is precarious eclipses racism and sexism in contributing to the “whitelash” represented by Donald Trump, but also that white vulnerability is what fuels the racism and sexism behind this representation.
Rooting the problem in the fear of losing whiteness rather than in less complicated but related bigotries of ignorance is critical. What this suggests is that those of us invested in freer futures are only served by committing to sever all attachments to whiteness and the safety it infers rather than in teaching, negotiating, or reasoning away its collateral violence.
If white people remain attached to whiteness, and the fear of losing their social position is the fuel behind racism and other violence, we are only as free from that violence as we are able to avoid threatening the underlying power structure keeping white people capable of enacting it in the first place. If a threat to white supremacy automatically triggers a “whitelash,” we can only refuse to threaten it or be willing to fight back.
This is why any call for Black liberation must also be a call for fighting back against the white-centering, anti-Black structure of society and a call for a very real loss of all privileges of whiteness. We should understand that young white people who voted for Trump’s representation of white patriarchal violence are not just ignorant racists and sexists, but they are latching onto whatever they can, including racism and sexism, in an effort to retain their status in a world which centers white patriarchy in everything it does.
“White vulnerability” is not a baseless fear. A world in which Black Lives Matter would necessarily require more negative consequences for the position of whiteness. White people would inherently have to cede ill-gotten economic ground to Black and other nonwhite people. We would necessarily have to “discriminate” more against that which is white and everything that centers whiteness because whiteness is violence. What they fear is what we require.
The problem is not that the significance of these necessary changes are misunderstood by white people, but that holding onto what whiteness affords is prioritized over what a free world needs Whiteness is violent system that requires subjugation, and therefore losing it is necessary. Some fear and uncertainty about this loss is an inevitable consequence. We can only commit to encouraging folks to embrace this uncertainty and defending ourselves when that’s not enough. We can only commit to defending ourselves, not fantasizing to all be on “one team,” when it gives us Trump.
Black liberation must always be more important than the desire to find solutions that are easier to embrace. Losing whiteness is not easy—for anyone.
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