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.

Living in a Consciousness of Fear 

Richard Wright begins Native Son with the exploration of fear and what it can do to a person, more specifically a poor black man named Bigger. In Book One, titled “Fear”, Bigger proves the virtue, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” (Franklin D. Roosevelt). While this quote can be somewhat uninspiring in a world where poverty and racism reek, in the case of Bigger it has so much truth to it. It is quite unsettling to discover Bigger’s downfall as one progresses through “Fear”. For someone who is extremely self-aware, Bigger remains so helpless. The reader knows that Bigger’s self hatred contributes to many if not all of the poor decisions that he makes. On page 10 it states, “He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else. So he denied himself and acted tough” (Wright 10). This kind of anger or discontent with life that allows him to think that he will retaliate in a way that ends in death is scary, but it speaks to the way that men tend to handle their emotions. Bigger views the suppression of his feelings and violence as the only answer to his feelings of powerlessness, and he seems fine with this. Wright states, “These were the rhythms of his life: indifference and violence; periods of abstract brooding and periods of intense desire; moments of silence and moments of anger…He was bitterly proud of his swiftly changing moods and boasted when he had to suffer the results of them” (Wright 29). Further, when he is playing “white” with Gus, they mimic the way upper class white men speak to each other. Bigger makes reference to J.P. Morgan Chase and the President of the United States. Their game reveals how incompetent they feel in a society that would never allow them to succeed in the first place. Their mocking of white maleness reveals their desire for proximity to it. Bigger desires to fly a plane like white males do and continually states that “they” don’t allow “us” (being black men) to do anything (to make money or be something). The one chance Bigger gets to make some money ends in tragedy due to his fear of blackness and whiteness. Bigger’s attempt to escape the responsibility he claims he does not possess leads him to the death that he tried so hard to avoid. He commits desperate acts of violence as an attempt to cling onto some power over himself and his future. However, his avoidance of his consciousness does not aid him in escaping the fate that he manifested for himself.

Wright on Irish-America

I found Native Son interesting for many reasons, but, particularly, when the text is put in conversation with last week’s reading, the complexity of the construction of Blackness is revealed. For instance, Baldwin reminds us , in On Being White, And Other Lies that “no one was white before they came to America,” insisting that proving one’s whiteness through the subjugation of Black Americans is “the price of the ticket” to being a white American (Baldwin, 178). In Native Son, Wright draws attention to the fluidity of racial construction; for instance, Peggy, Dalton’s cook, shares that “my folks [in Ireland[ feel about England like the colored folks feel about this country” (Wright, 57). While conflating the two experiences can diminish the complexity of each circumstance, Wright helps the reader understand that America’s racial construction doesn’t just fall on lines of Black and white; rather, racial constructions work to uphold the wealthiest white class, while races and/or nationalities seen as the other continue to work in subservient roles, like Bigger and Peggy. Wright further expands on this by explaining that no one hates Black America more than “poor whites,” because they gain economic mobility and social validity through their racism (Wright, 23). 

In the first part of the novel, it is very clear that Dalton’s house represents white America: guarded off, wealthy, and – in the literal case of Mrs. Dalton – blinded, further exemplified by Mary’s ignorance of the Black experience. While Peggy is still invited into the home, she can only access Dalton’s wealth through serving them, much like Bigger. However, there is a recognized inequality between Bigger and Peggy – between Black America and white America. Even Peggy’s comment about her hatred of colonization indicates that British colonization while a threat in Ireland, is not a reality faced by Irish Americans, but the threat of white power is a reality faced by Black Americans, like Bigger. Moreover, Peggy’s comments about the “last colored men” who worked for the Daltons prove that Wright draws a distinction between Peggy’s and Bigger’s status. 

In Irish-American communities, the discrimination faced still rings loudly; yet, as Baldwin almost predicts, discrimination is used to minimize the harsh consequences of racial constructions; Irish-America often points to their own discrimination as evidence that Black Americans cannot ‘rise above ’ their status. In reality, as Wright notes, Irish-Americans and Black Americans exist shunned from the upper class but different in their experience of race. Mary and Jan’s visit to the South Side indicates that Bigger’s experience is not just different but seemingly alien from that of White America. While Peggy appears for a mere four pages, Wright draws a sharp distinction between Black America and Irish-America, which would have been relevant as waves of Irish immigrants and Black migrants settled in Chicago in the early 20th century.

Hidden Fees: The Price of the Ticket

Baldwin’s On Being White and Other Lies and The Price of the Ticket left me with more questions than answers. I come from a mixed line of Irish and Filipino, but I’ve always called myself white. Upon coming to college, I joined the Filipino-American Student Organization, and my friends there encouraged me to embrace more of my ancestry. But I always came back to the question: what right did I have to claim my Filipino heritage? Baldwin seems to fundamentally disagree with that question. Baldwin bluntly states in On Being White and Other Lies that “White being, absolutely, a moral choice (for there are no white people)” (canvas document, pg 4). The claim that whiteness is a moral choice stems from the reasoning that being White means to choose safety and assimilation. To subjugate identity and subsequently accept an oppressive society for the purpose of subjugating everyone else. But Baldwin goes much further in The Price of the Ticket when he writes, “The price the white American paid for his ticket was to become white…I know very well that my ancestors had no desire to come to this place: but neither did the ancestors of the people who became white” (pg 842). I know this is true because all I remember of my Irish grandmother is how she pined for Galway. And the paintings on my wall of the Philippines from my great-grandfather’s memory. Reading Baldwin changed the question in my mind: why did I claim whiteness? In doing so, I inadvertently relinquished my heritage for the prospect of fitting in. 

Furthermore, Baldwin offers a much deeper understanding of systems when he discusses politics. Baldwin states that “This necessity of justifying a totally false identity…has placed everyone now living in the hands of the most ignorant and powerful people” (canvas document, pg 3). The dissection of the political atmosphere, of which everyone has grievances of varying degree, struck a similar note as a section of a reading from a separate class. Donella Meadows’ Thinking in Systems points out that the respective purposes of individual people or groups may add together to form a system that does not match anyone’s interests. Thus, economic interests, corruption, capitalism, self-serving protection, and poor support for recovery can result in a society where crime and drug addiction are difficult to combat (Meadows, pg 15). Baldwin does an excellent job of pointing out a similar vein in systemic racism: “Those who believed they could control and define Black people divested themselves of the power to control and define themselves” (canvas document, pg 4). The action of “white” people to control Black people causes them to become White, in what Meadows’ labels as a feedback loop. White people rise by forcing Black people to sink. The similarities of systems are strange but ultimately convey one of the reasons racism is so extremely woven into American society.