Black bodies can die by accident, obviously. But they are also killed by whites carrying out whiteness. When this happens, it is never an accident, a Professor of American History writes.
First published in June 2020.
In the 1963 movie “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow,” the super-rich Anna (Sophia Loren), while driving her Rolls-Royce, tells an up-and-coming journalist, Renzo (Marcello Mastroianni), that she never thinks about money. Renzo replies: “Because you have it!”
Whiteness is just like money. Those who have it don’t think about it. People who assume they were born into a white body think of it as transparent, normal, simple, and unconstructed. The white body disappears from sight.
The disappearance of the white body is an enormous problem. The reason is that the whiteness of the white body, especially in America, calls for an active anti-blackness, a set of practices and behaviors that demand the suppression of the black body.
Whiteness thrives on ideas and biases, to begin with, and these are sunk deep into the Euro-American mind. When the modern “science of man” was born, sometime during the 18th century, white skin was singled out as the original, natural color from which all the other colors degenerated. It was thought of as the model and the unit of measurement, allowing for comparisons. There were no shades of whiteness and, just like reason itself, whiteness was deemed to be one and indivisible. “We may consider the European figure and colour as standards to which to refer all other varieties,” these early anthropologists claimed. In Europe, they were certain one could find “the most beautiful and soundly built men.”
Ideas, no matter how absurd, are in themselves innocuous. But they elicit psychological responses and attitudes. Anthropologists and natural historians lost no time in “describing” non-whites – and every description entails emotional detachment. Non-whites were seen as carriers of so many “peculiarities,” their bodies so “strange.”
In 18th-century America, the black body emerged right away as the most interesting and the most “other” among the other “others.” True as it is that Natives became “red” and, later on, Asians “yellow,” Blacks stood out as otherworldly. (Irish and Italians, along the way, managed to get rid of their alleged “negritude.”) With them, no assimilation was possible.
No one expressed this sentiment more boldly than Thomas Jefferson. By reading his book Notes on the State of Virginia, we can’t help marvelling at Jefferson’s ability to subject black bodies to disassembling and decontextualizing – and at his total lack of empathy.
Like many other “scientists” will do, Jefferson deployed a language centered on arbitrarily selected physiological elements. Black bodies are horrific, he concluded. They “secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour.” They have “too a difference of structure in the pulmonary apparatus.” Behavioral elements were also arbitrarily selected: “They seem to require less sleep.” It didn’t seem problematic, to Jefferson, to ignore the larger context of social and cultural conditions.
As an ideology, whiteness is antagonistic. It is based on (wrong) ideas and elicits a lack of empathy toward non-whites.
Furthermore, it is a standard – and standards need to be applied, practically and systematically. Whiteness has been applied through technological apparatuses and organized violence: territorial conquest, slave trade, the institution of slavery, or, more recently, lynching, police brutality, and a president who flaunts his racism and shushes black reporters.
Black bodies can die by accident, obviously. But they are also killed by whites carrying out whiteness. When this happens, it is never an accident. It cannot be a fortuitous clash between individuals. It’s not the “bad apple” happening to kneel on the neck of the wretched bystander. Don’t you see it? It’s a Darwinian struggle. Whiteness’ survival is at stake. When a white encounters a non-white, especially a black, the “theory” has to be put to the test.
The only solution is to unmask whiteness and to bring into the public debate the fact that so-called whites are themselves racialized. White bodies do not exist – or, better, they only exist through the acts of black suppression.
White bodies are themselves full of “peculiar” characteristics, so far away from simplicity and beauty. White bodies are what they are – and they are not white at all. They have greyish, pinkish, greenish hues. Much worse, white bodies are too often armed, dressed in camouflage, and frightening. They are too often toxic to American society, and to every modern society, at that.
No-one is really born into a white body. Whiteness is the outcome of a constellation of ideas, emotions, expectations, cultural practices, and ethnic characteristics.🔷