Last night I attended a screening of I Am Not Your Negro followed by a Q&A with the director Raul Peck. Its an incredible documentary, and its full of interesting ideas. But the one that really struck me, was Baldwin’s deconstruction of race, and in particular Whiteness.
This idea runs through a lot of Baldwin’s speech in the documentary, but in particular when he says that white America created the “Negro-problem” to preserve their purity.
The so-called Negro problem in America is not a description of an actual situation, it is a psychological device created by white American society to provide a hated population against which they could define themselves.
In someways Baldwin is re-stating a common historical truism: that American racism was forged as a device to prevent the poor white and poor black populations from forming an alliance. However Baldwin’s insight is deeper than that. It is not simply a case of divide and rule, white American identity was forged in opposition to Black. In a sense people in America became white when and to the extent that they could differentiate themselves from, and reject and dominate the Black population.
There is a similar discussion in Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me , with the refrain “People who believe themselves to be white”.
For the men who needed to believe themselves white, the bodies were the key to a social club, and the right to break bodies was the mark of civilisation
The quote above picks up another issue: the absolute brutality with which the distinctions have to be enforced. The idea of purity perhaps helps to understand the obscene, excessive violence that marked slavery and later lynchings and the sickening frivolity that accompanied the events – postcards, picnics and souvenirs( See P. Wolfe, Traces of History for more on this).
Lynching was not simply a device to keep the black population of the South politically disenfranchised ( though it was that too) it was an emotional response to perceived pollution.
Picking up from this point, if the Negro problem was created by white America, to help them fashion themselves then:
Whiteness doesn’t exist. Towards the end of the film, Baldwin says “The world is not white. It can’t be, whiteness is just a metaphor for power“. At this point in the film I felt like Baldwin had casually summarised an idea I have spent years, and now, at least two blog posts trying to express. Race is socially and historically constructed but more than that, race is created by a political dynamic. The Whiteness of white Americans is something they develop as they become established on the continent, and cease to be simply Irish, or Polish or German. Whiteness is not a description of a race, it is rather a position in a power-relationship which builds itself in opposition to all the people who are not-white, and in particular those who are Black.
While this is most starkly seen in the violent dichotomies discussed in I Am Not Your Negro I think this is the basic structure of race across society. While it may adopt or appropriate the language of science, and may incorporate some elements of genetics, race is always a description of a social, historical and political position.