Membership. You have it -to a gym or Amazon Prime or Hulu or Spotify- so you know how it works. For a fee, you become a member and thus able to receive services and privileges that non-members can’t access — like discounts, free stuff, and the like. There’s even an elite dating app called The League, where, for a fee, you can have access to other professionals in your city.Their tagline is Equalist not Elitist and they display a nice graphic on their website to show you exactly how cream of the crop their members are with stats like most lived-in neighborhoods, top degrees, and percent who attended top tier schools in your city. Membership gets you in, but most importantly, it works to keep other folks (the riff-raff) out.
Imagine a membership that is hereditary. Maybe your mom, or your great grand dad or great great opa paid the fee generations ago. And you’ve inherited membership into this club — an exclusive club that gives you benefits and privileges that others can’t access. In fact, the very purpose of this club is to maintain (for members only, of course) prime access to good schools, resources, capital, health services, etc. This doesn’t mean that everybody in the club is rich and can take full advantages of the services offered, but statistically speaking, being in the club is better than being out of it, and it also gives you access that non-members don’t have.
Most memberships require a card or an account — some way to identify you as a part of the club. This one is no different. The club of Whiteness only requires that you be identified as white. If you know your American history, then you know that your Italian, Irish, and Jewish ancestors didn’t automatically get entrance into this club, but “became white” over a period of time. Membership in this club has meant a variety of things over the decades, including, but not limited to, citizenship, suffrage, access to government-sponsored assistance into the middle class, free land by way of the Homestead Act, government jobs, good schools, etc. All of this was done to the exclusion of other races.
Access to this club is what we are talking about when we talk about Whiteness. Think of Whiteness as a power construct– a way of apportioning resources and power (be it economic, political, or social) in a country. Race is meaningless, biologically speaking, unless you take into account the power aspect of Whiteness and how it has been used to make the lie of race into a myth of meritocracy. As Charles W. Mills puts it in The Racial Contract, “Whiteness is not really a color at all, but a set of power relations.”
I focus a lot on being Black and what oppression looks like, but the key to understanding racism in the US lies in understanding the power structure behind the oppression. As Zygmunt Bauman says:
In dichotomies crucial for the practice and the vision of the social order, the differentiating power hides as a rule behind one of the members of the opposition. The second member is but the other of the firsts, the opposite (degraded, suppressed, exiled) side of the first and its creation. Thus abnormality is the other of the norm, deviation the other of law-abiding, illness the other of health, barbarity the other of civilisation, animal the other of the human, woman the other of man, stranger the other of the native, enemy the other of friend, ‘them’ the other of ‘us’, insanity the other of reason, foreigner the other of the state subject, but the dependence is not symmetrical. The second side depends on the first for its contrived and enforced isolation. The first depends on the second for its self-assertion. (Bauman 1991, 14)
Thus, the “second side”, the differentiating power of our social structure hides behind and is opposite to “blackness.” That power (and not race) is known as Whiteness.
I’ll spend the next couple of weeks focusing on the image in the mirror (whiteness), instead of its reflection (blackness). Stay tuned…