Kamaljeet Gill looks at the enduring importance of James Baldwin and his deconstruction of the concept of ‘whiteness’
I recently attended a screening of I Am Not Your Negro followed by a Q&A with the director Raul Peck. It’s full of interesting ideas. But the one that struck me, was Baldwin’s deconstruction of race, and in particular Whiteness. It’s an idea that points to some limitations, and a lack of nuance that can still be found in discussions about race, even decades after Baldwin died.
The critique of the idea of race as immutable difference and its relation to whiteness runs through a lot of Baldwin’s narrative in the documentary, but in particular when hesays that white North America created the “Negro-problem” to preserve their purity.
For Baldwin, the so-called “Negro-problem” in America is not a description of an actual situation. It is a psychological device created by white American society to fabricate a hated population against which they could define themselves. Baldwin charted the impact of this process on the Black as well as white populations when he wrote how:
“In America, the color of my skin stood between myself and me; in Europe, that barrier was down. Nothing is more desirable than to be released from an affliction, but nothing is more frightening than to be divested of a crutch. It turned out that the question of who I was was not solved because I had removed myself from the social forces which menaced me – anyway, these forces had become interior, and I had dragged them across the ocean with me…”
– James Baldwin, ‘Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son’ (1993; orig. 1961), pp. xi-xii
Baldwin’s insight is deeper than the common historical truism that North American
racism was forged as a device to prevent the poor white and poor Black populations
from forming an alliance. It is not simply a case of divide and rule. White American identity was forged in very particular ways in opposition to Black.
To do this, it was necessary to create a Black people where one did not exist before and who could provide the material of the “Negro-problem”. There are hints of this racial temporality in the novel Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. When, reflecting on how her identity changed after leaving Nigeria, the protagonist Ifemelu says “I did not think of myself as Black and I only became Black when I came to America.”
People who were sold into the North Atlantic slave trade were not Black prior to enslavement. The category would not have been meaningful to them. However, in the violence of being brought to America, a range of salient differences: linguistic, tribal, cultural, religious was erased. The salient characteristic of the power-structure in which they were enmeshed picked up on a particular range of epidermal markers (skin tone) and labelled them Black. These markers were then yoked to some other aspects of phenotype and from them a racial categorisation was fashioned: negro. The term, and all of its adjuncts and synonyms came weighted with political and cultural significance which placed those it labelled in a specific relationship to those around them. In particular, it placed them at the bottom of a hierarchy which defined those at the top as “white”. The hierarchy was not fixed and unchanging. Groups of people could and did move around in it, and their racial classification also moved in response. The higher up the ladder one moved, and depending on your ethnicity and economic means, the closer to white one became.
This dynamic is visible in other colonial contexts as well, though of course the specifics of how it played out were different. It is visible in some of Gandhi’s early writings, when he uses the derogatory term “kaffir” to refer to the African populations of South Africa. This work is inflected with an earnest desire to differentiate his crusade for better treatment for the Indian population from any implication of racial equality. While he would later abandon this position, it is clear that at the start of his South African campaign, Gandhi is outraged to discover that in the eyes of the British, he is no better than Black.
In a sense, certain populations in North America became white when and to the extent that they could differentiate themselves from, and reject and dominate Black populations.
There is a similar discussion in Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me, with the refrain “People who believe themselves to be white”.
For the men who needed to believe themselves white, the bodies (of Black people) were the key to a social club, and the right to break bodies was the mark of civilisation
The quote above picks up the absolute brutality with which the distinctions have to be enforced. The idea of purity might help to understand the obscene, excessive violence that marked slavery and later lynchings and the sickening frivolity that accompanied the events – postcards, picnics and souvenirs (See P. Wolfe, Traces of History for more on this).
Lynching was not simply a material device to keep the Black population of the South politically disenfranchised (though it was that too), it was an emotional and visceral response to perceived pollution. A pollution that undermined an important psychological component of white American’s perception of itself. As Baldwin, himself put it:
“… the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity… Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the Black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star… and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations”
James Baldwin, ‘Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundred Anniversary of the Emancipation’ in ‘The Fire Next Time’ (1963), p. 20
It is significant that lynchings were often the response to perceived violations of the sexual probity of white women. In highly patriarchal societies, women and their sexuality become bearers of the status and dignity of the whole community. Men are then empowered to act with extreme violence in defence of this perception of honour, which is justified not merely as atavistic violence towards threats to their dominance, but as a principled defence of the status of the community. Lynching is an expression of this dynamic at work.
Picking up from this point, if the Negro problem was created by white America, to help them fashion themselves as a nation, then the Whiteness of white Americans is also something they developed as they became more established on the continent. They became more white as they ceased to be Irish, or Polish or German, Quaker, or Catholic or Jewish.
Whiteness is not a description of a race, it is rather a position in a power-relationship which builds itself in opposition to all the people who are produced as not-white, and in particular those who are Black. If there were no Black people in Africa, before they were brought to America, then there were similarly no white people in Europe. The term would have been equally meaningless.
We can see a clear example of the historical contingency of this power dynamic if we look at the history of white slavery. The historian Nell Irvin Painter argues that in popular imagination a dichotomy has been established between White/Free and Black/ Enslaved peoples as a result of the Atlantic slave trade. She picked up the topic in her 2010 book The History of White People. Painter discussed how people of lighter skin came to be characterised as white, and notes that historically speaking, the division above is an aberration:
The race narrative ignores early European slavery…leaving today’s readers to find the idea of white slavery far-fetched. But in the land we now know as Europe most slaves were white, and that fact was unremarkable.
Nell Irvin Painter, ‘The History of White People’ (2010) p. 33
Towards the end of the film, Baldwin says “The world is not white. It can’t be, whiteness is just a metaphor for power“. At this point in the film I felt like Baldwin had casually summarised an idea I have spent years, and now, at least two blog posts trying to express. Race is socially and historically constructed but more than that, race is created by a political dynamic.
While this is most starkly seen in the violent dichotomies discussed in I Am Not Your Negro it is a basic structure of how racial typologies operate. What does it mean, therefore for us to say that race is always a description of a social, historical and political position?
It is tempting to argue that this means race is ‘only’ a construct, an idea like money or marriage. There has already been enough ink spilled on Rachel Dolezal, that it would be
hubris to think I could add further illumination. But one important issue that is thrown up by Ijeoma Oluo’s recent interview (among many), is the role of ideas of biography and parentage in the formation of race. Oluo points out that Rachel Dolezal’s actions caused hurt and outcry in part because her personal background placed her at the top of a racial hierarchy, even as it enabled her to portray herself as being at the other end of it. Her refusal to recognise that privilege, is (rightly) criticised by Oluo. This is significant because it highlights that there are inherited and physical aspects to race hierarchies.
Populations develop physical characteristics as a result of environmental pressures. Light skin among Europeans is a response to levels of sunlight that require less protection for skin cells and make higher levels of melatonin, a disadvantage in terms of vitamin D production. Darker skin is a reaction to opposite environmental pressures. My own family has a genetic tendency to the thalassemia trait, a blood condition similar to sickle cell anaemia. It is one of a number of conditions that are common in South Asian (amongst other) communities. Along with its more deleterious health impacts, there is evidence that Sickle Cell and Thalassemia provide some protection from the malaria virus still common in the region. So while phenotypes that were grouped together as racial identifiers are the result of a political and historical process they can also tell us something about the dynamic exchanges between bodies and their different environments.
Have we gone too far the other way now, are we now at risk of straying into racial determinism? No. The racial categories identified by proponents of racial determinism, e.g. inherited differences in intelligence, only loosely map onto genetic differences between those populations. Identifiers of race may be historically and politically contingent but those identifiers themselves are not entirely randomly distributed.
So if race is not merely a construction neither is it an ontology. Reflecting the damage done to an earlier generation, Baldwin warned his young nephew against being trapped and limited by those who would treat it as such:
“You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger. I tell you this because I love you, and please don’t ever forget it.”
- James Baldwin, ‘Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundred Anniversary of the Emancipation’ in ‘The Fire Next Time’ (1963), p. 16
This is an extended and revised version of a blog that first appeared on the race is a process blog, a shorter version of it is still available there.
James Baldwin images by Allan Warren
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Kamaljeet Gill writes about race in history, culture and politics at the Race is a Process blog. He has previously worked on race equality and criminal justice issues at the Runnymede Trust.
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