For all of us who want to move white people into anti-racist consciousness and actions and into the river of a multiracial, Black-led liberation movement on the move, we need to remember the dual role of anti-Black racism for non-ruling class white people in the United States. Anti-Black racism was most famously fused into popular culture and ideology through the blackface minstrel shows, which became the national art form by the mid-1800s, teaching millions what it meant to be white.
On the one hand, the minstrel shows disciplined European-Americans, with a wide range of agriculture-based cultures, into a White American industrializing capitalist workforce – a workforce that prioritized a “self-sacrificing work hard (to make others rich) culture of individualism” and portrayed Black culture as lazy and shiftless, and attached playfulness, lustfulness and public displays of emotion as childish or animalistic (in other words, unable to control one’s “basic” urges which interfere with capitalist productivity). To be white (“self-made, self-controlled, self-sacrificing, self-sufficient, superior”) was to be anti-Black (“dependent, incompetent, entertaining, inferior fools,” whose place – for their own good – is serving the superior).
On the other hand, the minstrel taught White Americans that they must discipline Black people (or, take out all of their own rage from economic exploitation and political disenfranchisement on Black people). Through comedy and drama, the logic of the minstrel show went as follows: Black people are criminals always looking for ways to steal from white people; Black people are villains trying to take advantage of white people (or, steal white people’s rights and freedoms), and finally, Black men are predators looking to defile white womanhood and emasculate white men. In the logic of the minstrel show, white discipline of Black people justifies all means of violence and punishment as necessary for white safety and capitalist order – and in the end, as the minstrel show demonstrated, the discipline is in the best interests of Black people as well, as they are “childish” and “animalistic” and “can’t take care of themselves.”
James Baldwin famously said to white America, “If I am not who you think I am, you are not who you think you are.” Our responsibility as white anti-racists who want to dismantle white supremacy, and win and build a world where #BlackLivesMatter, and where we have economic justice for all, is to understand that white rage and white resistance is rooted in white failure to achieve the capitalist lie of “self-made, self-sufficient, self-controlled individualism” and attach blame, resentment and rage at Black people and people of color for this failure rather then seeing that this whole system of profound structural inequality is the real villain, predator and criminal.
Recently, I heard a working-class, white mother, holding her young child, say she was protesting President Obama because he was letting “illegal” immigrants stay in the country and get food stamps, when she herself was denied food stamps to take care of her kids. She stood there alongside middle-class Tea Party people, all of whom vote to cut food stamps for everyone (often using the rhetoric that Black welfare queens are taking advantage of the system, and never acknowledging that in fact white poor and working-class people are the largest racial group receiving food stamps).
I was holding my son of the same age as this mother’s child at a simultaneous protest for immigrant rights and Black Lives Matter as Obama spoke in Nashville, Tennessee. In her words, I felt the pain and tragedy of anti-Black racism in white lives, as well as its ability to marshal violent political, racist action. I looked at our children and felt the responsibility to create a different culture and society for kids to be raised in – a culture and society that affirms, ensures and protects the inherent worth and dignity of all people.
For white anti-racists, our task is to demand Black Lives Matter and learn how to deeply speak to, be witness to and listen to the pain underneath white rage and resentment, attach it to the real enemy of structural inequality and name racism as the violent poison that it is. Our task is to simultaneously work in solidarity with Black leadership and other leaders of color building this movement, and develop the leadership of white anti-racists, particularly working-class and poor people’s leadership, to free white people of all classes’ hearts and minds of anti-Black racism, and align us and them with multiracial democracy, economic justice and Black liberation.
We must forge identities rooted in challenging, not sidestepping, structural oppression, as well as collective liberation visions, strategies and understandings. Now is the time.