The Unbearable Being of Whiteness

You worship your melanin level. Get over it.

What would it be like to be white?

It’s a question I’ve never really considered, but pondering it now, I find the answer unsettling: It wouldn’t be all that different. Yes, of course it would mean unstitching from my soul that thread of thoughts and habits one might call “Chinese”–and who knows just how unraveled I’d become without that thread? But as far as how the world would treat me–ignoring me or not, abusing me or not, redeeming me or not–I can’t say I would be much better off for being white.

For although I am Chinese-American and thus a “person of color,” I am also this: child of the suburbs, product of mostly white schools, junior officer of the overclass, skeptic of hard-core multiculturalism, friendly with many minorities but friends with few, never once the victim of blatant discrimination, husband now of a woman named Haymon. I am, by the reasoning of racial ascription, already quite white.

What that says about me I’ll leave for those who know me to assess. What it says about our idea of whiteness, though, is for all of us to contemplate. In the cosmology of race, whiteness is something like a black hole–a crushingly dense complex of myth and rumor that pulls us, invisibly and irresistibly, into its hold. We move according to its properties, yet we know not why we move.

Consider, for instance, the now-standard formulation that if blacks would only surrender their race-consciousness, we could all ascend to a colorblind nirvana. You hear this line from plenty of well-meaning whites. But you also find it embedded in nasty right-wing polemics against diversity and affirmative action. The idea is simple: Given “the end of racism,” or at least the end of “irrational” discrimination, minority bellyaching only upsets what would otherwise be the proper social equilibrium.

I’m the first to concede the awful, balkanizing folly of many left-liberals on race. And to be sure, we’ve stockpiled so much “difference” over the years that a round of identity disarmament would be welcome. But we should first acknowledge that it is white race-consciousness–never quite named as such in our popular discourse–that begets the compensatory identities of nonwhite Americans. And it is whiteness that must first be revealed and surrendered before we can ever hope to transcend race.

White race-consciousness manifests itself in two forms: as blessing and as burden. In both cases, it exists mainly by negation; it nourishes itself upon all that it excludes. Thus it is that whites don’t generally think of themselves as having a race at all. To be white, really, is not to be many things–most notably, black–and to derive both security and standing from the absence of the stigma.

It is precisely this sense of “anti-race”–this affectation of colorless neutrality–that has allowed whiteness to insinuate itself as the social norm. This is whiteness-as-blessing: the knowledge whites have that in law, in literature, in politics, and in a hundred other realms, “a regular person” is, by default, a white person. Our vocabulary for assimilation makes the point. How do we describe the method by which nonwhites enter the mainstream and climb the class ladder? We say, or at least think, that they’re “becoming white.”

It used to be, of course, that “becoming white” was an option open only to European immigrants. But over the last generation, high-achieving Asian-Americans have been anointed “honorary” whites, usually so ordained by conservatives wary of black militancy. By striving and succeeding without complaint, Asian immigrants have become, in the words of Irving Kristol, “just another ‘European’ ethnic group.”

Ah, I see: Some are born white, others achieve whiteness, still others have whiteness thrust upon them. This is sheer narcissism, the notion that “making it” means whitening. And when it comes from the white right, it’s narcissism in the service of hypocrisy. For some of the very guardians of America’s alabaster template–Pat Buchanan, Peter Brimelow, and their ilk–are the same ideologues who reflexively rebuke blacks for any show of ethnocentrism.

The second variety of white race-consciousness–whiteness-as-burden–is no less tangled up in hypocrisy. But while whiteness-as-blessing expresses the arrogance of privilege, whiteness-as-burden reveals the willful ignorance of privilege. Nowhere is that more clear than in the periodic appearance of what I call the Left-Behind White.

In the ‘70s, the Left-Behind White appeared in the form of the “unmeltable ethnic,” that long-assimilated Italian- or Irish- or Polish-American who, in the wake of the Black Power movement, felt it necessary to dust off and revive the ways of the Old Country. He re-materialized in the late ‘80s, this time in the guise of the Angry White Male, the forgotten victim of minority preferences and “reverse discrimination.” A decade later, he has entered the scene again, dressed now in the finery of the Euro-American, a pitiable white who can’t find his heritage but doesn’t want to get left behind in the parade of affirming identities.

The spectacle of the Left-Behind White tells us again that many whites who complain about black obsessions with blackness are themselves obsessed with whiteness. What they are obsessed with in this case, though, is the cultural emptiness of whiteness. In a cruel reversal, it is the white guy, with no tradition to call his own, no history but one laden with guilt and apology, who is “truly disadvantaged.”

Just deserts, you might say, for those minority multiculturalists who pretended that equality of cultural recognition was as good as equality of actual power: Now whites want to play the same game, recounting to us the sufferings of the Celts, the indignities borne by the Welsh, yet still retaining the power premium they’ve long enjoyed–as whites.

But alas, we’ve hit a sure conversation-stopper now: the question of white power. No one, really, wants to talk about that. Perhaps it’s because “white power” sounds too much like an accusation. Perhaps it’s because “white power” brings to mind those neo-Nazi supremacists, those hateful extremists who, most white folks will say, “aren’t like us”–and who, truly, aren’t like most white folks. But whatever the reason, we have an almost allergic reaction to any serious consideration of the ideology of privilege we call “whiteness.”

How else to explain the reaction to “whiteness studies,” an academic discipline that has emerged in the last few years? Sure, whiteness studies, which might include everything from the history of Irish laborers to the folkways of suburban mallrats, is open to abuse, and therefore to ridicule. It appears, at a glance, like ethnic studies gone fatuously awry–and some of it is indeed loopy.

But whiteness studies has also been mightily, and deliberately, misunderstood. It is not the self-adulation of an already dominant class, or a crusade by the oppressed to demonize The Man. It is simply an attempt to identify the ways that whites remain blind to, and blinded by, an unspoken faith in race–and to expose the means by which white skin and “white attitudes” still confer social advantage.

It seems to me that we could all use some of that schooling. For it is whiteness–not blackness–that is the original sin of identity politics. And it falls on all our shoulders–not just colored ones–to rid the country of its viral color-consciousness. What would it be like to be white? One day, perhaps, there will be a better way to measure the blessings and burdens of American life.