This has been my experience, and a subconscious belief for many, and I suspect.
By white society, I mean the part in all of us that participates in a set of values, attitudes, beliefs and even forms of logic that centers people who are raced white, and that assumes white peoples’ experiences as the standard to which all other experiences should be compared. In white society, the closer you are in proximity to whiteness, the more secure your status of belonging is projected to be.
The following response is about an evolving personal definition of blackness that not only celebrates the moments when we feel good about ourselves or when we take comfort in shared traumas, but a definition that also examines the nature of the standards we use to measure those experiences: in what ways do we participate in whiteness, and thereby sustain the very oppressions we mean to disrupt, take apart, and heal?
The evolution that’s happening in me is one that says “maybe who I am doesn’t need to be theorized about, or documented. Because, for whom? For whose gaze? Whose reassurance?”
Maybe it’s more worthwhile to examine that thing that insists I legitimize myself in white society using parameters that maybe I didn’t consciously choose, like
validating blackness by using academic theory to talk about it (though, I sense that it’s a collective compulsion, not just mine, to wrap reason around anything non-white using white tools, kind of like a trojan horse), or
striving for high visibility and social status in order to make liberation a somehow more palatable idea. And again, I ask, “for whom?”
This is a shift from making a case for belonging via making myself understood, to understanding white society, which says that I am the one who needs to be understood in order to belong.
White society also says I am the one who needs to be visible in order to be identified, valued and either dismissed or welcomed in (on an infinite list of fragile conditions, (un)naturally).
The question of visibility, for me, is an ethical one.
I think I’m unalone in the experience of having won that race in my mind over and over again, pushed along by fumes of the last dopamine rush, and it still feeling bankrupt of meaning when you come back down to yourself.
The parameters we use to value the worth of our lives—and even here, there’s a presence and a reverence for capitalist thinking, another staple of white society—should at least be the ones we choose because they resonate with us, and I mean literally vibrate at a cellular level. No?
Whiteness and work
My work has to do with me understanding myself. That endeavor can so easily morph into a plea to be understood by the world around us, a world that whiteness dominates. The farther away one is in proximity to whiteness, I think, the more this plea can become spiritually dangerous. What is the nature of this center I am being compared around and against in order to measure the worth of my life and the art that comes from it? That is the thing, I believe, that is worth examining as something unnatural, abnormal and unhealthy.
The ancestral evolution that’s happening for me is one that cycles, always, between a familiar insistence that “I, too, am America” and “Ain’t I a Woman,” followed by a complete disinterest and reassessment of whatever the hell I thought it meant to be “liberated.” Is the liberated person someone whom white society has agreed is also a person, relative only to the representative white, male, masculine, not-poor, able-bodied, native-born—you get it. Our collective plea—see us, hear us, agree that our lives matter--in a way, reaffirms that the authority to say who belongs does not belong to us. And that is an oppressive idea, in concert with a continued self-exploration, and recording and observation of our histories, that I mean to explore.
Whiteness: the set of privileges reserved for people with white or white-passing skin
White society and whiteness: I may use white society and whiteness interchangeably. It’s because I’m trying to understand, and it requires a language that I’m not so well-practiced at using. Maybe it’s not so bad to be un-practiced, as it leaves room for honest inquiry.
Belonging: As opposed to “other,” hyphenated, asterisk. Normal. Welcome. Without need for explanation, because you have rightful place and safe space wherever you go.
Us: “Us” in the context of this response definitely means black people, particularly black american people, as black americans have cultivated what the global community understands as “black” and “black culture,” I believe. Black Americans also coined the phrase, “black excellence,” so re-examining it might be especially relevant to this part of the diaspora.
We: ...but you can be white or white-passing--or just not black or indigenous. You still have a relationship to oppression, albeit not as compounded as for those with fewer markers of whiteness, and are therefore more vulnerable to the effects of oppression. So, if this is you, hey there.
“My work:” the actions and mediums I’m called to. And it’s not always this fantastic “passion;” it’s more like work that has to come or I’ll corrode from the inside. That said, I’m letting go of the idea that the work is ever really mine, but work that a spiritual force is using me to bring into the physical world. So, I’m happy to be a little less precious about it by calling it “mine.”