On Whiteness, the Cold North, an Anthropomorphic Orange, and a Scouring Pad.
Originally published by AFROPUNK on December 6, 2016
I remember one late, warm, Canadian summer evening when I was young, sitting on the old marked and peeling linoleum of the bathroom floor in the small bachelor apartment of the complex my mother and I lived in, scrubbing my skin with one of the rough green scouring pads from the dollar store she had used earlier that day while teaching me how to do dishes. I imagine I was about five years old. My hair in its usual braided pigtails and a halo of frizz, red and blonde at the tips from the Sun. My skin deeply tanned from spending summer day after summer day at the complex pool. Peering under the elastic waistband of my shorts to see the sharp tan lines from my suit. I was tired of being Black. I couldn't understand why my mom got be white and I didn't. I didn't get why she was called white when really she was a shade of peach, why I was called black when I was really a light brown. Like sand mixed with a little loam. I didn't see how there could possibly be a difference; our skin felt the same, bled the same, smelled the same. Yet, I desperately wanted out of mine. To peel it off like persimmon skin. Flayed, strange fruit. I couldn't understand why the kids at school would make fun of my hair, my lips, my nose. I couldn't understand. Back then, I thought whiteness was skin-deep. So, I sat on the floor in the bathroom and I scrubbed. And I scrubbed. And I scrubbed. I made sure to do it in spots my mom wouldn't see.
She never did.
It never worked.
Thank goodness, the heavens, whatever gods there be, because this skin I'm in is a beauty.
* * *
I started writing this piece some months ago, thinking it would be a generalized meditation on whiteness as it is realized in Canada: part treatise, testimony, and analysis. Today is November 9th. Yesterday, in the dark of this continent's night, the United States of America declared a new President-Elect: a Mr. Donald J. Trump. You may have heard of him from a variety of memes featuring oranges. My piece is different, now. Yet, the same. You'll be reading this from some point in the aftermath of an election with a difference.
In anticipation of what is now yesterday, I have spent months reading examination after examination of something called white fragility. I wanted to introduce the idea of the precarity of whiteness, because it did not seem fragile to me, not at all. It encourages fragility in the people who wield it, knowingly or not—absolutely. But, ultimately, it creates that fragility through precarity. It is a precarious thing, whiteness. Today, this morning, it does not feel precarious. It feels strong, unyielding, firm in its longevity and resolute in its standing within all our hearts. But, I want to paint a picture for you, like one from a surreal and symbolic nightmare—one of whiteness clutching by turns dimwittedly and shrewdly but always inhumanely and firmly to the edge of a precipice, the land built of increasingly powerful people of colour. People of colour who are waking up as one to the heavy weight on their backs, unbalanced as it is as it clutches to the edge. As whiteness hangs there, smug, the precipice grows, the depths of the chasm beneath deepening. There is a long, long way to fall, now. After some five hundred odd years of this caustic construction, there is a fathomless pit below, designations and layers and levels and hierarchies of privilege stretching down, down, down. So very much to lose. An endless amount to give up. An unfathomable reality if it releases its grip. If its foundations rise up, unearth themselves, perhaps...
I wrote of whiteness and white supremacy as a precarious thing before this election. Now, I am unsure. Where that trepidation comes from is a ruse in and of itself, because voters had a choice between two of its embodiments, not between good and bad, right and wrong, better and worse. What I do know, is that white supremacy is an insidious virus. It does not discriminate. We are all infected, one way or another. Some of us, those who live in skins this virus likes, have a deeper-set infection to deal with. A greater responsibility. Fewer symptomatic painful flare-ups. But it is in us all. It creeps in through self-hatred and colourism, through split interests and a deep need to forget the role of capitalism in all our oppressions (because if we forget that, then our so-called success can still mean something, can still connote autonomy). Its favoured poison is racism, which eats away at any and all it touches. It has built our versions of liberalism, and convinces us we can save each ‘other’ from our individualist, nationalist pedestals using money and various versions of social superiority steeped in white Eurocentric ways of knowing and standards of intellectual and physical beauty.
I recently visited Austin, TX to attend a conference at which Chris Crass—a respected white anti-racist organizer, writer, activist—was a keynote speaker. One piece of his speech stuck with me: a story of his youth, and an exchange between himself, in his budding socialist, anti-racist activism, and a skinhead in his own budding white supremacist worldview. He spoke of a courageous conversation, of a statement and a promise given when he told the skinhead: "I refuse to let white supremacy have your heart." Despite the usual suspicion which arose within me when hearing testimony of white experience with race, this nonetheless rooted in me, this idea of hearts willingly handed over to the speaker of the greatest lie of modernity. How willingly have we each ripped open our chests, wrapped our hands around those resilient muscles, and handed them over to a thing that, without our sacrifice, would be nothing—just a wisp of hot air and fringe resentment. We have built this thing with our silences and silencing and our twisted vocalities raised up in its defense.
What next? We have hashtags, now. Crowdsourcing. Social media movements. Something tenuously called social justice. A word or five for what ails us (the kyriarchy, the white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy, the master's tools). And yet, still, something lacks. With every subsequent image, every video played unprompted, every black and brown then reddened body in the street, a hollowness forms. What fills it? For many, overt hatred, but perhaps for most, a small fear. That small fear, that insistent doubt, that glimpse of retribution on the horizon is what elected that person last night.
And, he is a person. Not a creature or a nightmare or some other dehumanized thing. He is not an orange. This is not a joke. I want to humanize Drumpf again because a) to humanize him is to legitimize the dread fear so many marginalized people have had coursing through them for his entire campaign and flooding through them since the announcement and concession and b) to humanize him is to recognize the mortality of what he stands for. It must be mortal. What is next is to listen ardently to our elders who have already told us tales of its weak spots (capital, binaries, community, solidarity, global uprising, an end to this fallacious version of democracy, etc.) and think differently. Think around the systems, trip them up, build walls around them instead of sitting back as they build walls around and through and of us.
* * *
Even though I should be taking time for self-care, I have been looking at Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr and Instagram. I see so many posts from my people and others among the oppressed. So many pithy, brilliant analyses in 140 characters and less, and much more. So much pain subsumed through intellect, wild passion, joy of solidarity, the possibility of a shifted, revolutionized system. The dream of a system dismantled in the wake of a weighted unveiling. We shine, even through our grief. Our rage sparkles and glints ominously. I am amazed by our resiliency. I am a part of a whole that cannot be stricken apart. That must mean something. It must.
On the way to and from Austin, I sat in Houston's immense airport and felt the hate in the air. Felt the stares. Felt the heavy-heartedness of every person of colour I walked by. What was happening was palpable. A shift. Then, I went 'home' and felt 'relief'. This relief was short-lived, because I've taken to forcing myself out of the tenuous lie of comfort that this nation has inculcated me with from birth.
It is comfy, here. Like a puffy white duvet, mostly filled with air and giving very little warmth, in the end. Here in Canada, we the North, we like to pretend. We are a nation of pretenders—at least we settlers are, anyway. We pretend we are above the fray. We pretend white supremacy is better labeled 'racism' or 'prejudice' or 'discrimination'. We pretend our multiculturalism is a shield made of a mosaic even as we dismember our people of colour to add to the breadth and intensity of the mosaic's affect, its brilliance, its vibrancy. We pretend that because we have a handsome, young PM who practices yoga with his brilliant and gorgeous partner and wears pink and white to Pride and has great hair, that it is alright when he breaks promise after promise to this land's first peoples because he does so with panache, a bright, disarming smile, and passable French. We pretend that the 49th is already a wall, built strong and high and thick enough to keep out the "horrible mess down South." We pretend. And it isn't just white Canadians who pretend. I will never forget the fact that the first time I was called a n****r, at the tender age of 6, it was not a white child, but a brown one who did the deed. That was the first of a great many betrayals to come. So many of us pretend, comfortable in our national privilege, and sink into a whiteness that was never built for us, and stay there, and forget. So, we have a solidarity problem, too—but perhaps that's another musing.
I hate to plead, but, please: let's refuse to allow each other to let white supremacy have our hearts, yeah? Try more. Do better. Act. Be change by speaking back to power that is equal to your own. Don't ask people like me for help. Do not ask your friends who speak from the margins of race, gender and sexual identity, class, ability, religion, citizenship, language, etc. for anything. Maybe, later, forgiveness. Hold us up, if you can. Speak to your people. Speak back at white supremacy and its bosom companions just as you recognize how infected you are with it. Learn its viral tongue and trace its path through your psyche, then pull it out by its tail, bit by bit, look it in the eye, and break it apart with your bare hands. I can guarantee you, it has no heart. There is a nothingness there. Bloody your hands with it. Our hands are tired and cracked and wrinkled and cramped from centuries of the repetitive motion created by constant attempts at dismantling the thing that has been trying to kill us, body and mind. Even soul, if that's your thing.
* * *
It is only recently that memories like the one with which I began this piece have started coming back to me. I buried them. So many of us do this. Some of us keep them within old luggage in cellars, others in well-kept boxes in attics. Some of us leave them to sit, dust collecting on them in inches, and still others take them out once in awhile, revisit them, polish their containers, and carefully—almost lovingly—place them back after the needed reminder. A small few of us have done so much of the work that these memories flow through our pens and out our mouths with such death-defying beauty that it stuns those who witness.
I have laid out a piece of my testimony, here. I hope you appreciate the weight of that. Of any such testimony you read, hear, feel. Especially in the wake of this election, and in the wake of this sharp right turn the world is so deliberately, methodically, and cruelly taking. For us to speak these things for your consumption is a beautiful, wondrous, treasurable thing. One of the most disgusting, revolting, painful, and despicable things about white supremacy, is the way in which—especially in its more liberalized and allied forms—it coaxes out of the person of colour their testimonies. It coaxes these testimonies out of us and then it ignores them. Or it questions them. It demands rationalization by its own already biased parameters. It coaxes out of us our pain and our hearts and it stomps on them again. It commits reviolence. This is the worst of its crimes, in a way. Because it convinces us that there is love possible between us all. And then it shows us once more how nearly impossible such love is, as things are. It infiltrates our lives, the close and soft places of us and it whispers to us that it can be trusted, only to stab us in our warm, exposed bellies after we have carefully hung our armour. This is, to me, some of the worst of it. The dupe. The great deception. The oldest one.
How dare you. Do better.