Beyond "Whiteness": Positive and Negative Identities for White Americans
It's imperative that every group can have a healthy vision of both.
For the last several decades, every small or once-marginalized group in American life has been cheered on, by the media and culture, in forging its own positive identity.
In some ways, this is, in itself or the abstract, laudable—or, at least, harmless. We think that everyone should feel okay with themselves, and feel as if they’re in a community or a tradition with shared history and concerns. Nobody should feel shame about belonging to a community linked, for example, by immutable characteristics. Our language, food, religion, historical memory, and other things contribute to who we are.
At the same time, though, too much positive identity presents a problem; sectarian “pride” movements are harmful to social cohesion to the extent that they compete with a shared American identity or—even worse—brings some to view that shared American identity as toxic or evil.
(Perhaps the proliferation of these alternative racial identities must, at some point, come at the expense of a shared American identity; like classical liberalism, the proper mix is both unsustainable in perpetuity and the product of a particular historical moment. That’s a different discussion, though.)
In encouraging the development and proliferation of these sectarian concerns, modern American culture has turned the complicated and very human phenomenon of identity into a simple, loud cheer.
That is to say, for minority groups in America, only a positive identity is permissible. Only laudable aspects of a minority self-conception are allowed; any deviation from the script—intimating that your group might have its problems in some small respect—is tantamount to treason, self-hatred or bigotry.
Negative identity could be understood to mean self-criticism. Being black or Jewish or Asian or whatever comes with ups and downs; things that fill someone with pride, and also some embarrassments, too. No human being is perfect, and all groups with their own characteristics and history have their own specific problems. Some stereotypes are more true than others, but most contain (at least) a hint of truth.
Offenses like the expanding, and ever-more-absurd applications of racism (“Ben Carson is a white supremacist,” “MBS is an Islamophobe,” etc) and the weaponization of silly, allegedly anti-Semitic tropes* serve to police the boundary around negative identity just as much as they are a weapon against political enemies. It keeps people on the plantation, so to speak.
The primacy of the positive identity and the total banishment of the negative identity within these communities—what the political Left would think of as out-group solidarity—often makes it impossible to have authentic conversations about pressing issues.
At the same time, there’s a massive, glaring exception to all this. White, straight males are not allowed, for themselves, a positive identity. In fact, the media and society tell us that, for just this group, only a negative identity is permissible.
The media responds with hysteria to the recent, small-time gonzo campaigns meant to press on this point, and make it explicit. Leaflets on campuses announcing, “It’s Okay to Be White” were pilloried as the work of hateful, alt-Right bigots, but critics didn’t really bother to unpack exactly why the words themselves were so offensive. They were counting on the overheated rhetoric against these campaigns to frighten away any persuadables. “It’s Okay to Be White” was not an expression of chauvinism—it’s not the best; it’s just okay—is the most anodyne possible expression of positive identity for white Americans, and all hell broke loose.
And, in case it hasn’t been made clear enough with Critical Race Theory trainings, Teen Vogue absurdities, DiAngelo’s White Fragility, and many more, there is nothing too negative one can say about white people in America. The term, “Whiteness,” was created to be both a synonym for that negative identity as well as a hate object. Calls to “Abolish Whiteness” are everywhere in universities, media and culture.
What the CRT debate is, really, is a test of how far into self-abasement they can take white Americans’ negative identity, and to what extent it should be codified into law.
As Carl Benjamin at Lotuseaters points out in an excellent recent video, the modern CRT campaign is the Left’s offensive in a war against Equal Justice (among other things).
But the dance between a group’s positive identity and negative identity is how it understands itself, and a healthy person or group will acknowledge the existence and validity of aspects of both. Preventing that dance—or short-circuiting it, to mix metaphors—has already done terrible damage to what’s left of the social cohesion in America, and will precipitate a political crisis.
This atmosphere has already created subsets of citizens who can’t be criticized, and those who can only be criticized. We need to break this, as it is both unsustainable and unjust. That it is unjust to demonize people on the basis of their race shouldn’t need explanation—though, unfortunately, today it might. (For that, I refer to the video at the link above.) But it is unsustainable: nothing in America is tearing at the fabric of social cohesion like the modern convulsions over race. And most everyone can sense it.
Amazingly, that negative white identity is so pervasive that—at least for some—no possible positive white identity can be imagined.
Why is this so?
If we’re honest with ourselves, the answer that comes from deep inside our gut, after generations of conditioning and propaganda, is something like, “unlike any of the minorities who are encouraged to have only positive identity, whites are uniquely evil and bloodthirsty, and having a positive identity of their own will lead us to horror and death and fascism.”
For many, standing in the way of a positive identity is the spectre of white nationalism, white identity politics, white supremacy, etc. In many ways, that’s really to be expected. The imprint is so deep, it’s instinctive. For the last several decades, the media has repeatedly shown us what a positive white identity looks like: evil and sub-literate KKK geriatrics, losers waving tiki-torches, Holocaust deniers, etc. Yes, it doesn’t take much convincing to know they’re gross and contemptible.
But the message they’re sending us is, any positive white identity—unlike any other—will inevitably contain overflowing hate as its primary component.
Does that really make sense, though? Is the only way for someone’s kid to understand himself as an evil oppressor, one step from committing atrocities, only due to their race? Would this train of thought be even halfway permissible if we’re considering another group?
What would a positive identity for white Americans look like? That’s a bigger question but, quite simply, it would be inclusive of the European civilization on which American government and society is largely based. There’s plenty there to contend with and to discuss and argue about. Not everyone who appreciates western civilization is a white supremacist. (That this needs to be said at all is quite insane.)
It is imperative that we begin to think through what it looks like for this group of Americans, who make up a massive part of the country. Because the answer, “no, not for you; fuck off” is unacceptable.
We can either pull back on identity politics—that self-running engine that encourages and moves us in this splintering, depressing direction—or we can figure out how to make peace with a positive conception of identity for white Americans. Considering, though, that both conservatives and classical liberals have failed to put a break on identity politics for the last few decades (and watched in horror as it’s gotten far more potent) that door seems to have closed. Above all, we need know what time it is, and to survey the scene as it is, not as we wish it could be.
*A Word about “Tropes”: Saying anything not praiseworthy about Jews (even one Jew!)—true or not—has turned into an “anti-Semitic trope.” A trope is an echo from past inflammatory rhetoric but, because there seems to be no limiting principle, it turns quickly into a political weapon. In most uses today, the trope is a microaggression—which is to say, something a reasonable person would greet with bemusement, at worst—that allows the speaker to wind up with the label of “anti-Semitic” potentially without intent or even really knowing why. My favorite cringe-inducing example was in 2016, when the very philosemitic Ted Cruz was accused of deploying an “anti-Semitic trope” for attacking Donald Trump’s “New York values.” (“New York,” the wags insisted, is code for Jews—except when it isn’t.) When accusations like this are tossed around, unavoidably in bad faith, it cheapens the real thing. Let’s retire this concept and, in so doing, recapture some sanity.
This post was spurred by a thread from Twitter. It’s here.
Andrew Sullivan @sullydish"Short of something like selling anthrax spores or encouraging people to explore sexual feelings toward nine year-olds, is there a worse idea than suggesting — demanding — that people get in touch with their white identity?" @mtaibbi https://t.co/s1aReapaRd