Race is a sociological phenomenon, played out for the benefit of the very few. They expressed its ultimate genocidal implications against Africans first, then against Europeans, which exposes its cruel irony. Malcolm’s “chickens coming home to roost”.
It is something well-known enough to most people that have thought on the topic that race is something that does not really “exist”. Not in the same way ethnicity does, a series of repeated patterns in the genetic makeup of people that share kinship groups, nor in the same way that culture does, sprung up from a mixture of human endeavour and the environmental circumstances that shape it. It is not a fundamental part of the universe, like mathematics, elaborated upon from first principles, or physics, with hypotheses only validated when backed by observational data. It doesn’t even exist in the same way other “fictions”, like money do, to solve a problem faced by people in the going about of their daily lives, or in the same way art does, bring meaning to the awe-inspiring complexities of life. Race, like money and art and some might even argue, mathematics, does not “exist”. But even worse than not “existing” in the most material sense, is not even a useful “fiction”, the type that solves problems or gives meaning to the shitstorm that is the human condition. Race is not the type of fiction that comes from the wellspring of individuals or the common ground of humanity. It is imposed from on high, from the big-wigs at the top, and disseminated among us, spreading until its bizarre and often contradictory tenets are as invisible and as pervasive as the air. It is also one that, unlike the other fictions mentioned above, does not benefit all. The other “fictions” are bent to suit the idea of the most pernicious “fiction”.
The history of the idea of race is well documented. People a lot more intelligent than myself have thought it through. The example brought forward in this essay of the top-down subjectivity of race is however, an interesting one to parse through. I would like to forward the idea that “Whiteness”, exists as a club. It is not something most people can be born with by default, it is something you are “gifted”. I’d like to call this idea the Club of Whiteness. The notion that people have always been divided into groups that will further their own interests is not one that is new, but by dividing them among arbitrary colour lines is. Whiteness is not just the negation of the idea of “blackness” (after all, the word ‘slave’ was used as the ethnonym of a group of Europeans who formerly made up this group) but it’s antithesis. You aren’t white because you are inside, you are white because you are not outside. The club of Whiteness, like many clubs, has a door policy:
- There is a group at the bottom. This group is less than human, and you must strive to be unlike them.
- To remove yourself from this group, you must strive to be more like us, the people who have set up the first axiom.
The first rule of the door policy is evident in the brutality of the slave trade. Previous depictions of Africans before the 1400s were ones of mystique, great lands and mighty kings and noble peoples, often modelled on the people that lived in the countries that invented this mystique. (Check out the MedievalPOC blog, an old favourite of mine) It is apparent that when one thinks of distant lands and peoples, that you would see the best of yourselves projected in them. The idea of Timbuktu, when first discovered by Europeans, held the same appeal as El Dorado held a century later, a land of distant, mysterious and seemingly endless wealth and culture. Not only is it a magnet to those attracted to the promises of riches, it also becomes a threat to the people carrying bodies across the earth to die in mines and plantations for profit. The senseless brutality becomes all too horrifying when you consider it happening to someone just like you. So the image of the African as a regal, noble, intelligent, fully human entity is gradually wiped away from the consciousness of the people who would put a stop to the carnage. The intelligentsia approves the notion of the inferiority of Africans and art disseminates the message of this inferiority as fact. The first rule is entrenched.
Whiteness can, has and is defined by skin colour often, with some enterprising but ultimately powerless African-Americans often ‘passing’. But the idea of whiteness is only on the surface level to do with skin colour to the shrewd observer. Enter Sarah Rector.
Sarah Rector was a ward of the Muskogee nation, one that also took part in chattel slavery, an idea they borrowed from their white neighbours, like horse-riding. Sarah also owned the deed to some land in Oklahoma, a newly developed state that the Muskogee nation was forced to migrate to to make way for the Europeans that took their land. Seems like the usual story, descendant of Slaves, native American forced migration, etc, etc. That is until prospectors find Oil on the land that Sarah owns. Lots and lots of oil. There is so-much oil in fact, that Sarah becomes “the richest black woman in the world”. Her story is interesting and ends rather sadly, after her wealth is used up in goodwill projects and buying herself a house, she dies broke and is relegated to a footnote in history. What is most telling about the story is Sarah’s treatment. She becomes, not only a celebrity and the pride of black America, but also, curiously ‘White’. She is, and was the first woman, a dark-skinned woman at that and one not passing for white, to travel in a space designated for white people, almost a half century before Rosa Parks’ legendary stand for justice at the front of a bus.
Because of her status as a person of extreme wealth, the companies that ran the trains she rode on found it completely indecent that she ride with the ‘Coloureds’ and she rode in first-class with affluent whites. They had made her a member of the club. A picture of Sarah before her wealth is an example of the first door policy in the club of Whiteness: She is seen as less than human. We are so used to seeing pictures of black bodies in such a manner, from the old sepia-toned images of slaves, to the starving African baby on some charitable appeal. Unlike the pre- “Age of Discovery” images of Africans, she has been dehumanised. Whole laws were created that demarcated and dictated the lives of who was “Black” and who was “White”, highlighted by the infamous “One-drop rule”. Sarah Rector, a dark-skinned black woman from a conquered tribe of indigenous people, triple subjugated, had managed to flaunt these laws. She had fulfilled the second door policy to get her in the club: she acquired wealth in the manner agreeable to those who wrote the door policy.
We often see it as the classic American tale: You strived hard enough, and you get ahead. But get ahead of who? It is rarely said, but it is always implied. You get ahead of the group at the bottom. All the people that emigrated to America from the 1800s onwards wanted to participate in the American Dream. But first, they had to know the door policy of the Club of Whiteness. The Irish were Micks before they got in. The Italians were Wops before they got in. White Latino/as were Degos, before they got in, Greeks, Poles, Jews, etc, etc. All the “other” before they got their spot. It is telling that, even while immigrants from other cultures changed their names or amended their religious beliefs to suit the dominant culture freely (how freely, given the pressure to fulfil door policy 2 is up for debate) African Americans had their names, cultures and religious beliefs stolen violently and still could not fulfil the second axiom as they were subject to the first. They were the Ur-other, the subject of door policy 1, the negative end in a dipole that stretched across the continent. You must not be one of them. But this was not enough, you have to be more like us. The people who built the club. So people play the game. Instead of investing in means of living that would be more conducive to human flourishing whatever their ethnic background, they give way to the structure of race set up to entrench a certain group of people in permanent servitude.
The image of Africans on the continent and Africans on the diaspora as the savage has us terrified that if we ever step out of our place, ever stop running on the treadmill, then our lives will end up like what we are shown on billboards and TV screens. It is even sanctioned by institutions set up to pursue criminals on the grandest scale. Is it any wonder that most of the convictions of the ICC have turned out to be of African war-criminals? This is not to absolve them of their crimes, but to highlight rules of entry into the club.
We see the same occur in the United Kingdom. Funnelled through private schooling and elite universities, attaining obscene wealth or marrying into money, the people who jump these hoops are those that have ‘made it’ and get to join the upper echelon of society. They too have graduated to the Club of Whiteness, despite their skin colour. It is ironic that in Europe the Club of Whiteness is most perfectly embodied in…clubs! Dining clubs, drinking clubs, smoking clubs, the Bullingdon club. Unlike in the Americas, it is not as apparent that it is not something people are born with, especially as the Club of Whiteness is more obviously ‘racialised’ in the United States, which often leads to our haughty feelings about our American cousins. It is not only emblematic of the colour of one skin, those who graduate to whiteness have passed a class barrier as well. Priti Patel is a contemporary example of such. Unlike Sarah, who used her wealth to benefit black people across the country, Patel has used it to demonise people who a half century ago would have been her own family. The UK prison population in 2018 became for the first time in the long history of incarceration on the British Isles, majority black and brown. This is despite these ethnic groups only making up a portion of the general population. The prison and post-prison population are a permanent underclass. Americans have aped Europeans in building a hierarchy that raises one group and subjugates another, through useful (and useless) fictions and legal codes, despite the often touted claim that it is a society without class where everyone can get ahead. Europeans have, in turn, aped Americans, where they are trying to build a society free of the traditional class system, but with no change to the door policy of the Club of Whiteness. Instead of just the poor, they have targeted people of colour. It is a hall of mirrors, where one form of domination is reflected over and over, the image twisted and warped. What stays in place is the door policy.
The underclass is seen as less than human, to remove yourself from this group, or even the threat of being in this group, you must strive to be more like us, the upper class. It is the fear of being destitute, in a land that could easily provide for every member of society that allows the great majority to stay on the treadmill. I sometimes say that the middle class, the engine of the continued wealth of the owners of the Club, are “carrot-and-sticked” into driving the wealth of those interests forward. They give us dire warnings of the fate of those that do not; the bill that keeps us one more month away from destitution, the unspoken of example of those the homeless, the horror stories of people dying in the freezing cold winters or the indignity of food banks. It is a terrifying background noise: the daily reminder that if we are not careful, if we ever leave our humdrum jobs or stop taking part in the inane acts of stupidity that keep the wheels of our moneyed society turning, that we could end up in the dustbin. The carrot is, well, the carrot. And it, understandably fills our dreams.
This dipole, of black and white, of the rich and the destitute, as mentioned earlier, has deep and genocidal implications. Pinning a racialised epithet to a group of people dehumanises them as stated earlier, and when they can no longer be exploited for economic gain, their dehumanisation takes another turn, exterminating them for political expediency. It is no coincidence that the first genocide of the 20th century took place in Africa, the Namaqba-Herero Genocide. What is striking is that the first genocide and the most famous genocide of the 20th century were both conducted by the same European power. Germany did not benefit as widely from the economic gain that of the “Age of Discovery” as a primarily land based empire, but its political power encouraged the decimation of ethnic groups. The first concentration camps were built by a European power in Kenya, and ended up being used in the same manner in Europe, to murderous effect.
This is the deadly fallacy of those who buy into the Club of Whiteness. Stripping it away is possible at any point they deem you to be not useful to the club. You can be cast out and discarded. This is something that many black Tories do not seem to grasp and that many of the white working-class do not seem to grasp as well. That your ‘whiteness’ is only temporary, a way to weaponise the lack of agency you have against people who have more in common with you than those who set up the axioms. As a matter of political expediency, they will drop you, leave you to fester in the mire. Only your resentment and fear will remain in a state that allows you to be ready for the next enemy you will be manipulated to rage against, and when you direct your rage at the people who set up the axioms, they will subjugate you.
The Club of Whiteness is a fun metaphor that I like to use to highlight the point of the essay. The term ‘subaltern’ coined by Gramsci in his prison notebooks and expounded upon by postcolonial theorists is one you should definitely check out if you are interested in some of what I have gone through here. It would be a good idea to check out the groundbreaking work of Isabel Wilkerson in her new book on the American Caste System too. I’m going to be a different type of club, come the 21st of June, with a less ridiculous door policy.