Why Whites Are Pieces of … Something

RWB

The white identity is entirely unnecessary– that is, unless the political or class category of whiteness is placed in the context of a global economy where Europe and Europeans (and therefore white people) receive the greatest material benefits of imperialist capitalism.  Then the necessity of whiteness becomes particularly true for white “Americans” in the United States, which is a settler colony of Europe built on genocidal violence against Africans, Indigenous peoples and most (or all) so-called people of color.  In this colonial context, whiteness is not just a matter of skin color, or an indication of one’s origins: whiteness is a ticket to resources, to security and to protection from the state.

Frantz Fanon wrote, “Looking at the immediacies of the colonial context, it becomes clear that what divides this world is first and foremost what species, what race one belongs to.  In the colonies the economic infrastructure is also a superstructure.  The cause is effect: you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.”

An English person in England, many centuries ago, would no more be described as “white,” on account of their pale skin, then they would be called a “person” in order to differentiate them from someone else.  The requirement of whiteness as a differentiating factor only came about when the question of resources in a world economy had elevated the political categorization of “white,” and so an individual in England now was not merely English but was a “white person.”  However, since they were already a person, prior to Europe’s imperialist conquest of Africa and the Americas and the world, their personhood had already been established.  As an English person who didn’t belong to the nobility, and who didn’t have the “right” blood, they may have been considered an inferior person, yet they remained a person nonetheless– particularly if they were a cisgender man.  And whiteness– while dividing up the conquered world, as well as the unequal distribution of the great wealth accumulated by this conquest– actually provided an ideological or political basis for the lowly Englishman to ascend toward full personhood, particularly at the stage of Europe’s development when bourgeois democracy replaced monarchy.

The United States, as the former colonies of England, gave the white person– who was no longer English or British– the ability to achieve full personhood, as guaranteed in the Constitution.  The ideological basis for this ascendance toward full personhood experienced by the white person in the colonies was the Declaration of Independence at the beginning of the war against England, which stated that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Prior to the European conquest of Africa and the world, which gave birth to capitalism, the English person in England was not considered equal by the feudal monarchy, and so the white person (both a person and white) was not yet born– not until France, the United States, and other white powers began to legally recognize the equality of “all men” (all white men).  After this point of history, if you were white in the United States, this meant you were free, you were an equal among men, and therefore you were granted the constitutional right to enjoy the spoils of imperialist conquest.  And if you were free, and equal among men, and were granted the right to the riches of empire, you were white.  Under world capitalist rule, whiteness became very necessary.

Beneath this ideological basis for the recognition of complete white personhood in the United States was the material basis of access to resources and wealth within a global economy controlled by Europeans (wherever we live).  As the globe has become smaller and smaller in the collective imagination of the European– its many territories outside Europe having been explored, conquered and often populated by whites– our consciousness of more resources and more land has grown bigger and bigger.  Whiteness, a political category, connects the European population to the land and its materials, and often to the sources of labor– the masses of brown workers– who must be dominated by imperialist power and forced to extract and produce these commodities for our benefit.  As a result, whiteness and property became inseparable, even as white people felt compelled to separate ourselves– once again through force– from the brown people of this new and growing global reality.

Europeans held the imagined world in our mind, and now it was just a question of how to bring its material fact– its resources, labor and land– toward our actual bodies, who were achieving greater and greater levels of humanity (that is, the liberal and humane ideals of freedom, justice and equality) through greater and greater levels of genocidal violence and imperialist conquest.  What was needed to make the dream of “the good life” a reality in “America” (and the world) was a political category, a system of identification which could serve as a differentiating factor for superior class status, or power: what was needed by Europeans was whiteness.

By connecting our identity to property and to the gains of capitalist empire, Europeans transformed our relationship to nature and to the world’s population outside Europe.  Whiteness is power.  Whiteness is wealth.  Whiteness is ownership.  And in order to identify as an owner, something (or someone) must be owned.  The masses of Europeans who had struggled under the system of feudalism could only gain full personhood through ownership and the creation of capital.  Whiteness is capital.  This is why the “white working class” is largely mythological– even when European colonizers aren’t wealthy we may still be able to cash in on our whiteness, or capitalize on our whiteness.

Without whiteness, our land, our labor, our very personhood might be up for grabs by the reigning global system of power, capitalism.  Without whiteness, we may become the owned, not the owner.  And a white person who is poor, who lacks property, who hasn’t done much with all these guaranteed constitutional rights to the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, and doesn’t enjoy many of the benefits of whiteness, is considered a great disappointment by this racist, bourgeois society.  They must be lazy, stupid, and worthless– like the rest of the people are, those who are less than human because capitalism requires that they be so.  If they were otherwise, and were fully human, there would be no Indigenous land for the United States, no African labor to create its empire, and no profits for G4S (one of the largest corporations in the world today).

Yet our relationship to colonized populations under the global economic system of capitalism has also transformed the European colonizers’ relationship to nature.  In an earlier stage of capitalist ascendance (and the ascendance of whiteness) the English poet John Donne famously wrote:

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.  And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Donne referred to “every man” as “a piece of the continent” in the metaphorical sense.  The identity of man, in John Donne’s imagination, wasn’t that he’s a piece of dirt, a clod.  Donne was talking about the spiritual connection of humanity, and specifically the individual’s involvement in the “mankind” of “Europe”— as a piece of the human continent.  Donne meant that the material reality of “man” involved a unity of spirit.

In England, we were previously just English.  Perhaps we originated in Normandy or Scandinavia, but white skin was hardly a differentiating factor, and certainly not a basis for class division.  However, in the colonial context of English and European capitalist rule, now our connection to nature, and the elevation of our personhood, is signified by our whiteness.  We are fed by capitalist empire.  We are clothed by capitalist empire.  We are able to grow and develop on account of capitalist empire.  Whether we are white in Europe or white in the United States, or Canada, or Australia, and whether we are wealthy or poor, whites are a “piece of the continent” in a very different sense, as part of a transformed relationship to people and planet.  To be a “[white] American” means we are part of conquered land, connected to territory ripped from the lives of Indigenous peoples, and henceforth developed through the subjugation of African lives.  In England, we were just English.  In Europe, we were just Europeans.  In the United States, whites are defined by an entirely different relationship to our physical location: we are nothing without the stolen earth which sustains our existence, and the exploited labor upon this occupied soil and all around a planet dominated by capitalism.

As far as our philosophical idealism is concerned, which fills the mind with visions of wealth, freedom, and decent, humble, kindhearted living, the white individual in the United States is free, and believes in justice and equality.  Yet in materialist terms, the white individual in the United States has only attained this liberal and humane sense of self through the theft of land, resources and labor, exchanging the personhood of Europe for the whiteness of “America.”

Whiteness sustains the metaphysical image of the liberal, humane “American,” yet this image is disconnected from the material reality of ongoing colonial oppression and genocidal violence against Africa and the world.  Our dreams of middle-class goodness stay there in our heads, empowered to be disassociated from the reality of capitalist empire because whiteness itself is insulation, a wall of colonial fantasies which shuts out the objective world, while the racist bourgeoisie piles up its profits and grows richer and richer.

And should it be any wonder that “racial tension” exists and that whites are not loved by the world as much as we believe we ought to be?  The global system of capitalism, through its ideology of white supremacy, has empowered Europeans to exchange personhood (however unequal it was prior to our invasion of Africa and the Americas), for the material benefits of whiteness.  These benefits of whiteness established a liberal, democratic, bourgeois equality among Europeans, in addition to a belief in freedom and other worthy ideals.  Yet whiteness transformed our relationship to the material world and to the population outside Europe.  Having elevated the white individual– particularly the “American” settler in the United States– to some lofty vision of human rights, Europe’s system of imperialist conquest subsequently disassociated the European person from their natural environment, by transforming the white identity into capital itself, based on its connection to land or property.

Capitalism reduced the European person to an inhumane object– or objectifier– in the dialectical relationship of the colonizer to the colonized, the oppressor to the oppressed, and the owner to the owned.  The greater sense of power and self-fulfillment experienced by the white “American” represented a disintegration of his connection to humanity and planet.  As a result, rather than being a piece of the human continent, as the pre-colonial, pre-capitalist European might have become, the white individual and whiteness became inseparable from the colonial and capitalist occupation of land and people, disconnecting us from nature and humanity.  Under capitalism, whites have become pieces of … well, something.

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Why Whites Are Pieces of … Something

Red, White and Who? The Search for a European Revolutionary Identity

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If you want to find the “ideal” group of white people in the United States that is the most likely to create a revolutionary movement among whites– in order to qualitatively change this backward, inhumane, and exploitative system called capitalism– then it would seem to be a good choice to look for whites who support African/Black revolutionary organizations: the “race traitors,” the “accomplices,” and even the “white allies.”  But then again, if we were to think for a moment about this effort to find the “ideal” white revolutionary, this whole process might start to feel more than a little strange.  After all, why do white people who are left-wing, or radical, or revolutionary, and who believe we have some reason to fight against the current system, go running to Black people or Africans for inspiration and guidance?

The answer seems simple: oppressive conditions for African people in the United States, and Africa, and everywhere in the world, create the necessity for a revolutionary identity, an identity of resistance.  Therefore, Africans in America (and around the globe) continue to lead the way when it comes to revolutionary struggle.  We could look to Toussaint L’Ouverture, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Claudia Jones, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, Kwame Nkrumah, Ahmed Sékou Touré, Walter Rodney, Imam Jamil Al-Amin (H. Rap Brown), Kwame Ture, George Jackson, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Queen Nanny of the Maroons, Marcus Garvey, Gabriel Prosser, Frederick Douglass, Robert and Mabel Williams, Patrice Lumumba, Samora Machel, Maurice Bishop, Thomas Sankara, Amílcar Cabral, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Jalil Muntaqim, Cyril Briggs … and the list goes on and on.

But it’s one thing for Africans to view themselves as belonging to a revolutionary identity, an identity of resistance.  They have the right to create their own definitions on their own terms.  So if a “woke” African were to say “all skinfolk ain’t kinfolk,” and were to tell a reactionary African (for instance, a cop) that they are betraying their community, then such a view would be coming from inside their own identity, and through their own experience of Blackness, and therefore would carry the extra weight of actually being Black.

However, if white people automatically associate Blackness with revolutionary politics, then– coming from the outside— we would seem to be saying that a conservative Black person, or a Black person who isn’t “woke enough,” is somehow less Black, and perhaps even less human.  And, of course, this is racist.  We have no right to hold this view.  What’s worse, a white person might even believe that because they are “woke”– in the same way as Huey P. Newton or their revolutionary Black friend– then somehow this puts them in front of the Black person who is a Republican or a cop.  Perhaps we should remember the words of Kwame Ture (formerly known as Stokely Carmichael): “Every Negro is a potential Black man [sic]; we will not alienate them.”  At any rate, this is just something for us to consider the next time we are talking about pigs and liberal bourgeois politicians (Barack Obama) in some general, The Intercept-type way.

The constant need for Europeans (whites) to associate revolutionary consciousness with Blackness and with Africans seems to indicate a deficiency of humanity on our part.  Europeans in the United States should have our own reasons for wanting to dismantle capitalism, as well as our own revolutionary identity to engage in this struggle, as subjects of our own narrative of liberation– similar to the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the Palestinians, and the people of Cuba, Nicaragua and Puerto Rico who are non-African.

At the same time, white socialists who are not “pro-Black” (if it’s even possible for white people to be pro-Black) often go to the opposite extreme: all the sudden, the Black struggle is meaningless as a part of socialist organizing or class struggle.  In fact, Blackness becomes an obstacle to revolution, reinforced with the white leftist claim that “identity politics” is liberal.  It doesn’t matter if you’re Black or white or whatever– it’s about the proletarian class and generic workers.  This is their view.  And this is a strange argument coming from many white socialists who oppose violence as a tactic and who favor the election of Senator Bernie Sanders (former Presidential candidate for the Democratic Party’s nomination) as a means toward a revolutionary change of systems.  Sadly, it seems to be the case that whites either attach ourselves to Blackness, in order to appear “woke”– placing a great deal of our focus on Black liberation– or we ignore Blackness altogether, and believe that anyone who says “Black Lives Matter” is “too liberal.”

So, in short, whiteness is a mess.  You can’t fight for liberation while, at the same time, showing loyalty to the United States– the most oppressive and violent empire in the history of the world.  But you also can’t fight for liberation without pointing to some land, some culture, some community, and righteously declaring “this is ours“: “Everything that is ours has been stolen.”  Europeans in the U.S. don’t have any land that legitimately belongs to us.  We don’t have any culture that hasn’t been appropriated.  And instead of a community we have a capitalist system– we can buy a T-shirt that says we’re “woke” but true community or authentic revolutionary consciousness isn’t for sale.  Meanwhile, a large number of white atheists aggressively argue that we also don’t have a religious basis for our struggle against injustice.  In fact, whites often behave as if we lack a soul.

But we do have a soul– it must be somewhere in there under all this mess, this whiteness, this capitalist greed, this constant need to consume, to take up space, to get in the business of everyone else.  Note to self: let Black people have their own revolution.

If we consider ourselves to be pro-Black, whites may wish to focus on actively supporting Black-only spaces and organizations– often by simply going away.  For example, so-called “Black Twitter” may be one of the newest forms of uncompensated labor by colonized Africans in the United States (and beyond its illegitimate borders).  A European (white person) can follow just about any African (Black person) on Twitter, and this becomes free entertainment, or almost free.  And this activity (always understood in a colonial context) is like watching sports, or watching movies, and television shows, and comedians, or like listening to Black musicians on the radio– it’s an escape from whiteness.  Except Black people don’t ever seem to be allowed to escape our white gaze.  Revolutionary or not, we latch on to Blackness, go wherever it goes, mimicking (or mocking); and then a Black person who isn’t as “woke” as we are shows up, and we act like we should correct them, and so we use all this free knowledge we’ve accumulated to put them in their place– which is pretty much the same relationship of power that existed under slavery and Jim Crow.  By following “woke” Black people on Twitter, whites seem to think we have a ticket to Blackness, to revolutionary consciousness, and therefore to humanity (in this dehumanizing, colonial, white supremacist system).  But this is really just a ticket to cash in our privilege, to capitalize on the colonial status of whiteness, by learning the outward forms of the Black experience while never actually experiencing what it means to be Black.

Europeans who want revolution should learn how to create our own revolutionary identity, which can happen only through principled organized struggle.  And even then, this revolutionary identity may not be possible without first having experienced a massive loss of wealth and power, as these are taken from us– not given by us– on account of the global struggles of oppressed peoples.

Whites may gain inspiration and guidance from the Black Panther Party and African revolutionaries, but let’s face it– it doesn’t look so good on us.  Red, black and green go with skin that has melanin, history that has resistance, and a land called Africa.  Of course, European revolutionaries should reject red, white and blue– burn it, and refuse to salute it or pledge allegiance to it– but, at the same time, we could say: unoriginal is unoriginal, flavorless is flavorless, Becky is Becky, whether we’re on the right-wing or the left-wing.

So the question is: can white people overcome our whiteness– an identity based on exploitation, colonization, and the theft of land, resources, culture, and labor– to the point of creating a positive force for humanity?  Stay tuned!  (But don’t hold your breath.)

Red, White and Who? The Search for a European Revolutionary Identity