The Cost of Whiteness

On Wednesday, the groups presenting on Baldwin and Civil Rights posed the following questions: How are our identities related (Black vs white, male vs female)? Are they interdependent? How so?

In our recent class discussions, we have considered the question: what is the cost of whiteness?

To me, the answers to these questions are quite similar. 

In Bodies That Matter, Judith Butler states the following: “Th[e] exclusionary matrix by which subjects are formed requires the simultaneous production of a domain of abject beings, those who are not yet ‘subjects,’ but who form the constitutive outside to the domain of the subject…This zone of uninhabitability will constitute that site of dreaded identification against which–and by virtue of which–the domain of the subject will circumscribe its own claim to autonomy and to life. In this sense, then, the subject is constituted through the force of exclusion and abjection, one which produces a constitutive outside to the subject, an abjected outside, which is, after all, ‘inside’ the subject as its own founding repudiation” (xiii).

In this excerpt, Butler is describing what it means to exist as a queer, trans, gender nonconforming individual, but I believe her understanding of these unlivable conditions also apply to being Black in America. She describes an articulation of a norm here as inextricably linked to the creation of the abnormal. In fact, she extends this to say that the existence of what is normal is actually reliant upon what is abnormal. Applied here, and in response to the original question posed by this group, I might ask: what would it mean to be Black in a world void of whiteness? Blackness fortifies the regulatory norm of whiteness. Whiteness cannot be without its direct opposition to and distance from Blackness–the abjected, unlivable, uninhabitable position in society. Thus, what whiteness costs is Black lives. Butler may say that the privilege of whiteness makes the site of the materialization of Black bodies devalued and endangered–quite literally not just figuratively, as we see everyday in our society. 

I think Baldwin would agree with this application of Butler. I think he would understand Black bodies as abjected in society, as never existing as the subject but only as the nonsubject that grants the subject livability. 

Post-Mortem Treatment of Whiteness and Blackness

One of the things that stuck with me from our discussions this week – in a horrific, searing kind of way – was that of the post-mortem treatment of whiteness and blackness. We see this most precisely in Mary and Bessie, who, because of their differing races, face significantly different care post-mortem. During the courtroom proceedings, Wright chooses to include an explicit objectification of Bessie’s body in service of a white woman’s justice. 

Bessie is neglected in life and in death. She explains the social death that characterizes her life to Bigger; she exists solely to work for white people and the white-benefitting systems that oppress her. Bessie’s neglect within the text is authenticated by Bigger, her rapist and murderer: his “eyes widened. He had not thought of Bessie but once since his capture. Her death was unimportant beside that of Mary’s; he knew that when they killed him it would be for Mary’s death, not Bessie’s” (Wright 304). He forgets, again, later on: “He had completely forgotten Bessie during the inquest of Mary” (Wright 331). Bessie’s social death is ignored during her life with Bigger, yet is corroborated in her actual murder by the same person. Not only is Bessie’s own death completely neglected as deserving of justice, but it is further demoralized when her body becomes a spectacle within the courtroom. “They were bringing Bessie’s body in now to make the white men and women feel that nothing short of a quick blotting out of his life would make the city safe again…Though he had killed a black girl and a white girl, he knew that it would be for the death of the white girl that he would be punished. The black girl was merely evidence” (Wright 331). Bessie’s “bloody and black” body is objectified by the coroners/judge/lawyers in justice-seeking for Mary. Bessie, then, is raped twice in death: once by Bigger after her social death, and yet again by the white public and courtroom, after Bigger has murdered her (Wright 331). Mary’s body, contrastingly, is burnt, in a near-cremation. Her corpse, thus, is free from post-mortem objectification. She carries freedom even in death. 

This notion becomes further convoluted because a black body is being used to prosecute a black body. In other words, Bessie’s body, as black, becomes the proof of which to prove male black monstrosity and secure white justice. Bessie becomes an exhibition, for the eyes and cameras of the white people, whom she felt had killed her in social death long prior. An exhibition, in which she would have “resent[ed]” (Wright 331). When viewed through the lens of film critic Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”(1975), the female body is fetishized to displace anxiety of the male spectator. The mechanism by which we view Bessie’s post-mortem body is dissecting, dehumanizing, and objectifying. All processes of which continue in service of racism and whiteness.

Don’t Be Salty

In James Baldwin’s “On Being ‘White’ and Other Lies,” the prolific author argues that “[n]o one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country.” (177). In the process of oppressing primarily Black and Indigenous populations, white Americans made “a moral choice” to become white (Baldwin 180). According to Baldwin, this choice has made white Americans “as speechless as Lot’s wife—looking backward, changed into a pillar of salt” (180). Re-reading the essay, I was struck by the parallel between Baldwin’s description and another wife of Lot: Mrs. Dalton from Richard Wright’s Native Son

Wright makes a concerted effort to emphasize Mrs. Dalton’s whiteness. Mrs. Dalton’s “face and hair were completely white; she seemed to [Bigger] like a ghost,” and “her grey eyes looked stony” (49). Mrs. Dalton wears “flowing white clothes,” and often keeps a “white cat” by her side. Truly, the woman is entirely blanched of pigment. Above all, Mrs. Dalton––a living pillar of salt––is allegedly the most sympathetic character to Black Americans. 

Like Lot’s wife, Mrs. Dalton is unmoving in her whiteness, to the point where she is incredulous to her maintenance of systems of oppression. Bigger is clear: even Mrs. Dalton only “wanted him to do the things she felt that he should have wanted to do [emphasis added]” (Wright 61). Although Mrs. Dalton prompts her husband to donate millions to charities, sends a single Black man to college, and is generally amicable towards Bigger, she is blind to the fact that her wealth is exploited from Black families. She and her husband employ Bigger at a wage of $25 per week, which is ostensibly generous until the reader realizes that their daughter has a discretionary budget of thousands of dollars (equivalent to hundreds of thousands today). 

It is easy to read a novel like Richard Wright’s Native Son and talk about Blackness. It is harder, yet equally necessary, to talk about the construction and preservation of whiteness in the novel and in our own society. One of the most important lessons that we might draw from Wright’s characterization of Mrs. Dalton is that even the most well-intentioned white Americans uphold and profit from systemic anti-Blackness. It is not enough to merely post anti-racist infographics on Instagram. Black activists have popularized a number of vital ways for white Americans to be more ethical: donate to mutual aid funds; buy from Black-owned businesses; etc. While heeding those calls, white Americans might also learn from Native Son and investigate the sources of their income. 

If white readers like myself and many of my classmates do not turn our critical lens inward, we make the grave error of being blind to our own actions. However, as we know from our novel’s introduction, Wright’s overarching project in Native Son was to speak with “forthrightness and independence” to both Black and white Americans, whom he believed “continued to cling to a range of fantasies about the true nature of the relationship between the races.” Even today, many white Americans cling to the fantasy that implicit bias trainings and a Democratic President will automatically undo centuries of oppression. While these liberal projects (like Mrs. Dalton’s) are well-intentioned, they are not enough. We must ask ourselves probing questions. Are you invested in a real-estate firm that profits from red-lined neighborhoods? Do your parents own a business that pays starvation wages to POC? Does your University invest in private prisons (hint: it does!). These are just examples, but my point is simple: we must not be frozen in our privilege. We must break free from the salt that encapsulates us.