Baldwin on race, whiteness, and privilege

In the opening lines of “On Being ‘White’… and Other Lies” James Baldwin writes, “there is in fact, no white community” (177). This reading being my first exposure to the content of this class, I was particularly struck and intrigued by this assertion. I wondered what Baldwin meant by “community” and how he could assuredly make, what at first seemed to me, such an immense statement. As I continued to read this piece, however, the meaning of this initial comment began to make more sense. In combination with his later point that “no one was white before he/she came to America,” I interpreted Baldwin’s argument here to be a reference to the notion that race is a social construction. In this sense, these initial remarks affirmed my understanding of race that I had come to in other classes, primarily in the “Political Psychology of Racism” with Professor Davis.

Yet, as I continued to read this piece and then “The Price of the Ticket,” Baldwin proceeded to challenge my interpretations of the opening statement of “On Being ‘White’… and Other Lies,” race, privilege, and whiteness. Rather than simply presenting the idea that race is socially constructed, I now contend that Baldwin goes beyond this in suggesting the purpose behind defining race, and with that, identifies a need among White people to preserve the understanding that race represents inherent differences between black and white “communities.” To this point, Baldwin explains, “America became white… because of the necessity of denying the Black presence, and justifying the Black subjugation” (178). He expands further that “it is the Black condition, and only that, which informs us concerning white people” (180). I believe that these points culminate movingly in “The Price of the Ticket” where Baldwin closes with “they require of me a song less to celebrate my captivity than to justify their own” (842). According to Baldwin, to become white is to rise while to become black is to sink, and, thus, race has no significance beyond the system of oppression in which it was created. This idea of an unearned elevation made possible merely be being white is a useful way for understanding not only race relations but more specifically white privilege. In fact, one of the first readings for my class with people incarcerated at Westville Correctional Facility as a part of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program devoted a quite a few pages to Baldwin in discussing what it means to have privilege. The “price of the ticket” requires complete assimilation in exchange for belonging, and it also affords enduring privilege to whoever “pays” and their subsequent generations– manifest, for example, in the increased likelihood of the arrest of someone like one of my classmates at Westville who grew up in an over-policed neighborhood.