Many Americans are invested in the idea of a “post-racial” moment — a moment marked by our purported movement beyond a historical chapter colored by race-based discrimination, intolerance, inequity, and violence. Such a turn signals America’s fascination with the notion of a transracial future and a utopian vision of an America, where bodies will be free from racialization. But, we must ask: whose bodies and lives will this grand social vision benefit especially when considering the counter-investment in notions of “blackness” that post-racial propagandists seem to maintain?
It is argued that multiple gains have been made in the area of racial relations since the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement. Many of us witnessed the appointment of our country’s 65th and 66th Secretaries of State, General Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, the former was the first African-American and the latter was the first African-American female, both were Republican. An African-American man and woman, Bob Johnson and Oprah Winfrey, both notable African-American entrepreneurs, have appeared on the Forbes Billionaire List. To the astonishment of the international community, America was brave enough to elect a bi-racial or Black (or, non-White) man, Barack Hussein Obama, as the 44th President of these United States. And, now our nation’s capital is home to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and will soon be the home of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is scheduled to open officially in 2015. For some, these few moments evidence racial progress, particularly those of African Americans in the twentieth century.
To be sure, Daniel Schorr, NPR Senior News Analyst, noted in 2008 that America was moving into a “post-racial era” that was defined and “embodied” by Barack Obama. He went on to argue that we are in an “era where civil rights veterans of the past century are consigned to history and Americans begin to make race-free judgments on who should lead them.” Schorr connects post-racialism to the ascendancy of Obama, a multi-ethnic brown African-descended man, and not, say, his then opponent, John McCain. The fact that Obama is cast as the catalyst of this post-racial era illuminates what post-racialists understand as that which is in need of e(race)sure, namely, blackness. It is unsurprising, then, why post-racialism is a concept that has been taken up to talk about one’s transcendence from blackness into a state of being where his/her blackness is “blurred” or ceases to be altogether.
But imagine, if you will, a societal advancement of the notion of “post-white.” If you tried, to no avail, to imagine — like I did — an America that sought to intentionally and aggressively move beyond whiteness, don’t be alarmed because it is a feat that is nearly impossible.
“Whiteness” is an enduring social force that produces a racialized system of access/excess. Those with access have phenotype, structure advantages, and racial legacies to thank. But it is also, as Judy Helfand suggests, that which “is shaped and maintained by the full array of social institutions — legal, economic, political, educational, religious, and cultural.” In other words, whiteness is methodically sustained through ideology and praxis. It is not easy to disappear and, I am pretty certain, that there are many White post-racialists who would rather not live in a post-white moment because the legal, economic, political, educational, religious, and cultural benefits assigned to their whiteness would be no more.
The notion of post-whiteness, or the leaving behind of whiteness as we’ve come to know it, might very well provoke fear and anxiety among some. For example, the Eagle Forum, which is an interest group started by the conservative anti-feminist Phyllis Shafley, released a legislative alert in response to the New York Times story, “Whites Account for Under Half of Births in U.S.” The “alert” cautioned, “NY Times liberals seek to destroy the American family of the 1950s, as symbolized by Ozzie and Harriet. The TV characters were happy, self-sufficient, autonomous, law-abiding, honorable, patriotic, hard-working, and otherwise embodied qualities that made America great.” The only descriptor that remains loudly unpronounced on the Eagle Forum’s list of positive characteristics is the racial identity of both Ozzie and Harriet.
Despite the racial anxieties of our present moment, it is time for Americans to investigate what it might mean for us to consider post-whiteness as an idea and material possibility during this so-called post-racial era. I would sign on as a proponent. We could even ask Tim Wise to lead the way as we begin interrogating the ideas (and advantages) of whiteness as they manifest in these United States and around the world. I long for the day when the Mitt Romneys of the world will argue for a move in the direction of a post-racial, or, rather, a post-white moment: a moment when White racism is really called out and destabilized; a moment when the vestiges of skin privilege are diminished; when real-time material conditions like wealth accumulation, criminalization, and poverty aren’t disproportionately shaded by race. Oh, what a day that would be.
Colorblindness, as Schorr intimated, is not the issue. Indeed, the only “color” that seems to move undiscerningly among post-racialists is whiteness. And it’s not White people alone who have made such a turn, see, for example Touré’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? or Ytasha L. Womack’s Post Black: How a New Generation Is Redefining African American Identity. In most cases, blackness is the “color” that we are beckoned to transcend in this post-racial era which is why it is a fallacy to name it such. We are more embedded in the socially constructed categories of race than ever before. Don’t believe me? Ask the Tea Party or check the US Census Bureau’s statistics on the median incomes of whites in comparison to black and brown folk in our country. Take a look at the number of non-whites who make up our prison and death row populations. Ask the livid “Hunger Game” fans who vented on Twitter because the film’s director cast a young African-American actress, Amandla Sternberg, rather than a White actress to play the role of Rue. Or consider the psychic traces of race/racism, the ways in which racism shaped our settler-colonial state and its laws, and the ways we embody and live out race-thought every day.
The point is: America’s troubled past and complicated present is wedded to the social reality of race. American history serves as a reminder of our country’s troubled race relations and even the moments when difference was celebrated. Americans also know, all too well, that whiteness functions as a non-race that does not require bodily and cognitive transcendence. Similarly, White racism and White privilege show up as non-issues that are eagerly critiqued, yet, rarely undone. Therein lies the problem.
Whiteness travels in stealth; it is supplemented by what anti-racist feminist Peggy McIntosh, writing on White privilege, unforgettably names the “invisible knapsack.” The fact is: that “knapsack” has been quite visible in the lives of native and non-white Americans. It has only been invisible to those who carry the weightless knapsack on their backs. Indeed, the burden of the sack is felt by everyone but the bearer. It seems, then, that there is a need for new interrogations of our present racial moment. This may very well be the perfect moment for us to enter, as opposed to transcend, America’s racial imagination.
How’s that for a postulation?
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