Ryan Williams-Virden explains how denying the truth about whiteness is standing in the way of progress against racism.
Eleven days ago, David Brooks, the conservative op-ed writer for the New York Times, wrote a pseudo review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book Between the World and Me. The book itself is excellent and pulls no punches in challenging what Coates’ calls “The Dream” i.e. the idea of America that many cling to. Brooks acknowledges the power of Coates’ work but completely misses his point. In fact, Brooks is the perfect example of the “Dreamers,” and “those that must believe they are white” whom Coates discusses in the book.
Brooks — like many Americans, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democratic– find Coates’ general premise to be false, they believe in the American dream and will defend it at all costs. They will write it off the book as venting, or race-baiting, a distortion of history (as Brooks claims) and that he is simply wrong. This is a problem. While it’s true the book was not written for white audiences that does not mean there is nothing in it for “those who believe they are white.”
American History and Truth Telling
The first thing that, to use Coates’ term “those that believe they are white” can take from Between the World and Me is an understanding of history. One of the excellent aspects of this book is that it is truth telling. When Coates, referring to Lincoln’s famous line at Gettysburg that government of the people not perish from the earth, says: “The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant ‘government of the people’ but what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term ‘people’ to actually mean,” he is pointing out a fundamental contradiction in American history, which our curriculum largely ignores.
Coates is by no means the first to suggest this, since the Revolution there has, in every era, been those who bravely point out the contradictions and hypocrisy in American rhetoric. Ironically, Brooks actually cites Lincoln as an example of the benefits of the Dream. Instead of dealing with these ugly truths, America, by and large, opts for what historian Ronald Takaki calls the Master Narrative, a self-serving, soothing narrative of the greatness and benevolence of our founding fathers.
Any flaws they may have had, or violent laws they had codified, have been remedied by equally praise worthy Europeans such as Lyndon B. Johnson. As Brooks says ” [t]his country, like each person in it, is a mixture of glory and shame.” This is a a trademark of whiteness and of the actions of those who must believe they are white: The individualism with which history must exist to ease the conscious.
Brooks can not see that history acts on more than individuals, history created and shaped institutions and systems which remain beacons of hate and exclusion, and which must be dealt with. Coates very eloquently details how history has impacted him, how it is full of violence to the Black body. To miss — or worse, deny– this truth telling is to remain articulated with whiteness, and to persist as an obstacle to progress.
Believing in Whiteness
As any legit book that engages racism should, Between the World and Me deals with whiteness. It is here, at this engagement, that the book struck me deepest. I also believe it is here that many people who look like me will feel a tremendous amount of confusion, and fear, and anger, and unrest. Coates, very rarely, if ever, simply refers to white people.
Instead he chooses to say “those that believe they are white” or “those who must believe they are white.” Sometimes the way he uses the term “Dreamer” would imply he means white people. Coates is acknowledging what many have claimed: whiteness is more than having a white body. To say “those who believe they are white” is to implicitly suggest that you do not have to believe it. It is opening the door to dismantling white supremacy. Beyond that, it places the onus where it belongs, on those of us who are considered white.
Perhaps this is where Toni Morrison’s comparison to Baldwin is most fitting. Coates understands that the American history he carries, “the Dream,” and its counterpart, Coates’ streets, are all the product of this thing called whiteness, and the subsequent race thinking that followed. If we are to truly move forward as a people then we must accept this simple truth. We can not be as silly as David Brooks and surrender to foolish, childish, and false sensibilities. We must do more than listen and have our ears full, we must hear, and then act differently.