As a white kid who grew up in Langley, I grew up in whiteness. There is a fear among white folk that talking about whiteness is dangerous. But once again we have seen that not being white is a far more dangerous proposition. George Floyd was murdered by Derek Chauvin. This needs to be said. But we keep seeing such appalling stories in the media because of the system that makes them possible.
Whiteness is not a metaphysical entity, an ideal form, a divine gift. Whiteness is a system, and the system of whiteness is, as Eula Biss wrote back in 2015, privilege, a word “composed of the Latin words for private and law, [which] describes a legal system in which not everyone is equally bound.”1 The system of whiteness is “a system of social advantages that can be traced back to the advent of slavery in the colonies,” and to the dispossession and genocide of the First Peoples in North America. The point, then, is not to feel guilty and stop there, but to recognize that this guilt is built upon the “material concept” of debt. In short, “material debt predates moral debt.”
In 2015, after the murders of Akai Gurley and Tamir Rice, n+1 published a round table with Cosme Del Rosario-Bell, Elias Rodriques, Doreen St. Felix, and Dayna Tortorici.2 St. Felix remarked that the ability of the police “to do these things is implicitly—they never say it, but it is—to protect whiteness. So if you are policing blackness, the policing doesn’t occur in a vacuum. You’re doing it because black people are considered dangerous to white people,” which is to say, dangerous to whiteness: the historical, economic institution that protects the privilege of white people. This institution, this system, this structure is what continues to repeat itself through these awful tableaus of ritual violence.
To talk about structures and systems and institutions is to recognize the material form that overdetermined the murder of George Floyd. Over-determination, as opposed to pre-determination, is a matter of forces and complexities—in short, it is a way of thinking in systems, a way of thinking about how individuals come to participate in systems irreducible to personal factors and the immediate conditions of a given interaction. To say that the murder of George Floyd is “about race” is not simply to say, “he’s black,” and “he’s white,” but to recognize the system at play.
Ta-Nehisi Coates broke this system down in 2014 in his essay, “The Case for Reparations.”3 More recently, John Clegg and Adaner Usmani published “The Economic Origins of Mass Incarceration,” a detailed sociological study that brings to light the economic system in which American racial inequality is inscribed—i.e., the material, economic structure that overdetermines American race relations.4 Again: material debt predates moral debt.
This is not, as Biss says, about “dedicat[ing] [yourself] to the fruitless project of [your] own exoneration.” The correct response for those, like me, who grew up in the privilege of whiteness, is neither guilt nor complacency. The correct response is to “refuse to collude,” to refuse to continue being “complicit.” Put bluntly, this means refusing “to enjoy supremacy without believing in it.” Complacency turns whiteness into “pure profit”; guilt is a tithe paid for the preservation of one’s privilege. These are just two forms of violent, white narcissism.
My whole life has benefited from my whiteness. But as Biss argues, to conceive of my privilege as benefit is another overdetermination of the system. “We are moral debtors who act as material creditors. […] When we buy into whiteness, we entertain the delusion that we’re business partners with power, not its minions.” To continue to participate in the economy of whiteness is to take out a loan on our souls.
Thinking about systems, forces, and complexities is hard. It is a lot easier to feel bad about all the privileges I have had than to reckon with their material conditions. When Biss writes about the “redlining, block busting, racial covenants, contract buying, loan discrimination, housing projects, mass incarceration, predatory lending and deed thefts that have prevented so many black Americans from building wealth the way so many white Americans have, through homeownership,” I see a list of experiences so foreign to my own because the system was built for me. We have our own lists in Canada, lists of simple, everyday, material practices that overlap and interact to produce a system, a system that obscures its own structure in order to establish itself as an unalterable edifice. This edifice is what I have been referring to here as whiteness.
Whiteness is not about merely being white. Indeed, as a category, whiteness “is a flimsy and fairly meaningless product of [the] 18th-century pseudoscience” of race. “Whiteness is not a kinship or a culture,” but rather a social, economic, and historical institution built upon the backs of people of colour that continues to privilege white people today. This institution “is a house built on credit but never paid off.”
Thinking about systems, forces, and complexities is hard. Changing them is even harder. But what is patently clear is that whiteness does not need to be protected because whiteness is protected by society itself.
Eula Biss, “White Debt,” New York Times, December 2, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/06/magazine/white-debt.html. ↩
Cosme Del Rosario-Bell, Elias Rodriques, Doreen St. Felix, and Dayna Tortorici, “Hands Up: A Round Table on Police Violence,” n+1, no. 22 (Spring 2015), https://nplusonemag.com/issue-22/police/6423-2/. ↩
Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic (June 2014), https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/. ↩
John Clegg and Adaner Usmani, “The Economic Origins of Mass Incarceration,” Catalyst 3, no. 3 (Fall 2019), https://catalyst-journal.com/vol3/no3/the-economic-origins-of-mass-incarceration. ↩