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Homo Icarus: The Depreciating Value of Whiteness and the Place of Healing

Homo Icarus: The Depreciating Value of Whiteness and the Place of Healing

Bayo Akomolafe

 

Dedicated to those who are putting their bodies on the line to protect the voiceless, the invisible and the occluded – and to my ‘father-uncle’, Engineer Tokunbo Obayan, who passed away a few days ago.

 

Burning torches with their smoke tails thread the night, casting an amber glow on angry faces.

White bodies shift here and there in vengeful unison.

Heavyset men adorned with tattoos, crawling moustaches, baseball bats and bandanas mingle with unremarkable but no less animated men that could actually pass for friendly neighbours.

Flags bearing the swastika and the blue ‘X’ of the Confederacy flap about listlessly.

Fists punching the air and Nazi salutes perforate the thick, ominous atmosphere.

Throaty chants of “Jews will not replace us”, “You will not replace us” and “Blood and Soil” – the late 19th century slogan of German agrarian ultranationalists in Hitler’s Third Reich – hover above the crowd.  

Surrounded by reporters trying to make sense of his previous noncommittal and half-hearted denunciation of white nationalism, the American president boasts about the size of his winery in Charlottesville.  

It all seems like a bizarre dream. Images from a drunken nightmare.

As I watch the spine-chilling scenes unfold on my television screen, I wonder whether I am witnessing filmed segments of a much earlier time when racism was blatant and obvious.

No.

This is present day America. Land of the Free. Home of the Brave.

Charlottesville, Virginia. August 11, 2017. Anno Domini.

 

WHAT’S HAPPENING HERE?

When I was very young, I caught a few episodes of Kunta Kinte during reruns of ‘Roots’ on Nigerian state television. Prior to my watching the show, my friends and an uncle had warned me about it; they said the drama was a sad thing to watch – humans, our forefathers, reduced to cotton-picking animals, and chained to trees like dogs. You couldn’t watch it without crying – they said – even if your tear ducts were surgically removed. I remember watching a bit when I wasn’t worrying about homework. I couldn’t fathom how anyone could treat another person that way. My young innocent mind had no explanation, but didn’t quite need one at the time: encouraged by my faith, which summarily dismissed nonconforming complexity as wickedness, I simply chalked the practices of the slave-owners up to some amorphous quality of evil, and rested quite assured that slavery and racism were not matters of course but were things of the past – a past that was staid, drab, ignorant and colourless (if black and white television was anything to go by). The world had thankfully become better – thanks to Martin Luther King. Thanks to Mandela. Racism only existed in history books. Now everyone could go about without fear of censure.

With age comes the nuanced and disturbing truth of a world that still hasn’t rid itself of its troubling racial and class injustices. A world haunted by ghosts that will not rapture – ghosts that are figures of unresolved issues. Watching members of the new ‘alt-right’ movement take to the streets in Charlottesville to solidify their arguments for white nationalism in America, and to protest against diversity and multiculturalism, revives those childhood feelings of dread – the same unexplainable dread I felt when Kunta Kinte, his sweaty body shackled to rusty chains, appeared on our screen. Sure, I have been the recipient of short bursts of micro-aggressive racism, but nothing so noteworthy…nothing so unashamedly violent that it tore through the fragile veneer of public decorum. This feels startlingly new. And I seem to have lost the innocence of yesteryears and the luxury of chalking things up to ‘evil’ or ‘wickedness’. Something else wants to be noticed – some detail buried in the flotsam of almost-wisdoms that compete for our attention.         

Yes. This feels new. Even with Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, Tamir Rice and the 611 police killings of black people in 2017 so far, this shocking spectacle of lights and swastikas and unbridled hate pushes the envelope. At least to us in other countries, who reluctantly receive daily updates about goings-on in America, served in bold screaming fonts that make local news trite, Charlottesville feels like a tipping point – as does the troubling resurgence of neo-Nazism, the KKK, and white nationalism in Trump’s America. The jagged line that parses America’s uneasy politics into a weaponized binary is growing into a gaping chasm – an untraversable zone. One gets the impression, after a few minutes watching CNN, and two panellists ordering their colleagues to “shut up”, that the mainstream conversation about race and class in America is virtually non-existent. Goaded by action-y soundtracks, a blitzkrieg of computer graphics and exhausting chyrons, televised dialogue now feels more like gladiator matches than productive engagements. A game of sides. This feels like a major rupture of an old fault line that refuses to be sand-filled or covered up with platitudes about American greatness, and threatens to upheave the presumably secure foundations of the American social order.

 

THE GHOSTS THAT MOAN      

How do we make sense of it then? What is the meaning of this? Is there some way to understand why a 20 year old man felt safe and permitted to drive his car into a crowd of people – killing one counter-protester and injuring 19? Perhaps the easier thing to do would be to call it as it is – in the manner John Pavlovitz has done:

This is racism.

This is domestic terrorism.

This is religious extremism.

This is bigotry.

It is blind hatred of the most vile (sic) kind.

It doesn’t represent America.

It doesn’t represent Jesus.

It doesn’t speak for the majority of white Americans.

It’s a cancerous, terrible, putrid sickness that represents the absolute worst of who we are.

Earlier on in his article, Pavlovitz argues that such raw directedness is exactly what is needed today. No mealy mouthed ambiguity. An honest appraisal.

‘Lord knows’ we could do with some honest talk in today’s post-truth world! I have often found it peculiar that the most consequential period of American colonial history – its treatment of slaves and the gruesome genocide of peoples indigenous to ‘Turtle Island’ – is often treated as a footnote on the pages of American emergence by almost everyone except minorities. When those on the Right of the American political spectrum tiptoe around the issue of racism or white normativity, deny the real and troublesome effects of structural oppression with a wave of the hand, or assume that the world is a level playing field where everyone has an equal opportunity and capacity to ‘reach the top’, I also feel Pavlovitz’s anger and his urge to name the beast. The near universal criticism of Trump’s inability (or refusal…or both) to call out white supremacy and other hate groups by name suggests Pavlovitz is not alone with his sentiments. And, perhaps, this well-intentioned yearning for a bottom-line description is the right thing to do – a ‘first’ response to the tragedy of Charlottesville.

But then, a curious impulse possesses me…perhaps a sad ghost that hopes to draw attention to the chains that binds it to wounded places. I cannot shake off the notion that trafficking in essences or reductionistic appellations – while culturally meaningful and, perhaps, deeply soothing to our moral sensibilities and collective sense of outrage – is part of the scaffolding that has obstructed a ‘deeper’ reckoning from happening in America. In other words, the conversation in the mainstream leaves little or no room for the deep healing that needs to take place or for the kinds of fragile encounters and rituals that touch racial wounds.

My question is: is this enough? Is calling this phenomenon ‘evil’ or a ‘sickness’ as we are wont to do – whether as a rhetorical gesture or as a sincere attempt to be objective – a meeting of the ghosts that roam, the excluded voices whose peeled flesh hang in wait for some resolution? Does this address the social violence encoded into the norm, and does this pry out the stark and startling from the unremarked and obvious? At the risk of being labelled a white supremacist sympathizer, and in a fervent hope for healing, I want to join my voice to the soft, barely detectable, chorus that now streams past the loud arguments of the mainstream. A tune difficult to parse that nonetheless speaks about other places of power – where whiteness is composted with the many colours it was never really separate from. 

 

A DETOUR AT THE CROSSROADS

My discomfort with what I, with hesitation, might call ‘the mainstream response to Charlottesville’ so far emerges from the teachings of my people, the Yoruba of western Nigeria. The indigenous wisdoms of the Yoruba people invite us to think of the world as a matter of crossroads. As an ongoing emergence of the manifold via surprising intersections and ‘intra-actions’.

When offering a prayer or a libation, the word ‘asé’ is usually spoken out loud in a call-response encounter – a word which many interpret as the Christian ‘amen’, but which goes further than just ending a sentence or indicating acquiescence to a sentiment. Asé is the music of the crossroads and the brokenness of all things. The concept of self and identity, re-described in the queer philosophy of asé, cannot conceive of the “other” as “negativity, lack, [or] foreignness”; it repudiates the idea of identity as “an impenetrable barrier between self and other [that is set up] in an attempt to establish and maintain its hegemony.” In other words, just as you find bands of darkness in light, and a heart of light in the blackest shadow, the self and the not-self are not separate, and difference—though real—is not fixed, but dynamic and co-emergent.

The crossroads is not the place that lies ahead, a one-time occurrence. All roads are crossroads; every highway a junction of intra-sections. Matter-mind … reality … every “thing” is already a quilt whose sewers, human and nonhuman, are scattered across space-time—every object a node in the cosmopolitical, material-discursive traffic of things crisscrossing, cross-hatching, crossing-out, bleeding-in each other. Crossroads help us appreciate our inter-being/intra-becoming and help us realize that something interesting is always happening at the boundaries and borders of things, and not just in their core or centre.

The socio-economic-politico-scientific apparatus of modernity prescribes separation and proscribes entanglement – blinding us to the stunning mutuality that binds values, objects, discourses, bodies, ideas, and all sorts of phenomena together so intimately that we can no longer say that things predate the interactions they make with each other (indeed, some have even suggested we do away with the word ‘interactions’, and have proposed ‘intra-actions’ – where the latter invites us to consider ourselves still in the making, always porous, and co-constitutive with manifold others).

As subjects of a modern arrangement of things, we tend to see things as independent from other things, not as intra-acting agencies. To explain the emergence of an object and why it behaves in the ways that it does, we look within the object, cutting it open, hoping that by means of isolation, distillation, reduction, extraction or abstraction, we might arrive at the secret ingredient within the object – the essential core that lies behind the fleeting form of its materiality. The structure behind the appearance.

As an example, the Ebola phenomenon is deemed to be caused by the Ebola virus. Similarly, climate change activism is popularly understood as the concerted efforts to mitigate the deleterious effects of carbon emissions; and, in the same vein, the racist is the unfortunate psychological product of the choices s/he has made in times past – the unit of racism. A glitch to be fixed. What we fail to notice is that the Ebola virus is only an aspect of specific stringed events (perhaps including healthcare policy practices, cultural practices and beliefs around the environment, and even contemporary tourism practices) that make an outbreak situation possible. And carbon solutionism excludes the myriad ways our bodies are weathering agents. Just as we cannot localize an epidemic and climate change to a virus and to carbon emissions respectively, the efforts to pinpoint the trouble of racism in the racist is an effect of a dualistic, Enlightenment (Judeo-Christian) philosophy – the same one that hopes to arrive at the essence of an onion by stripping away layer after layer.

It’s a radical thing to say and a most dangerous notion to admit: that in some non-mystical way, I am practically entangled with those people I would rather demonize as white supremacists and Nazi sympathizers. The dual framework permits us to separate the ‘racist’ from the ‘non-racist’, to install a fundamental distinction between their absolute depravity and our detached moral coherence, and to defer and deflect responsibility. There are not too many places to go from there: when we begin from this set of assumptions, incarceration, conversion therapy and reverse oppression are the responses that almost always follow. However, a non-dual framework, such as the one described by indigenous notions of crossroads, emphasizes entanglements, intersectionality, diffraction and intra-action. It speaks about many others that are already a part of us; it speaks of ‘vital absences’ – things that are not there, and yet have very real effects (the very definition of a haunting); it points to our brokenness and demands a different analysis of power – a careful giving-of-accounts that messily makes us complicit in the very things we want to do away with. Crossroads chide our ethical safety because of what it does with time and place: instead of thinking of the past as the previous, crossroad cosmologies consider the past as what is yet-to-come and responsibility as the enablement or disablement shared by co-participants in this complicated mangle. Cause leading to effect goes out the window; good versus evil becomes naïve. Within sensuous cosmologies, we are all in it together – in a way too slippery and electrifying for campaign slogans to capture. As such, instead of siting the problem within the ‘culprit’, crossroads mean that responsibility is distributed across multiple human and nonhuman bodies, embracing discourses and material configurations across spacetime.

If at all there is any cost to our attempts to shut down the conversation with emphatic conferments of moral depravity on erring sides, it must be that it further represses what wants to be expressed, and does not allow healing to happen. It shuts down the pleadings of ghosts whose hauntings call us to linger in unusual places – perhaps away from convenient gathering spaces and popularized talking points. And Charlottesville – the epicentre of recent furores – has many ghosts. Ghosts that speak of deception, Faustian deals not fulfilled, and promises not kept. Ghosts that escaped the gaps of broken necks, through the gashes of wounded backs, and through the rent in the sky as a ritualized conversation between the sacred and the mundane was interrupted by the dead-eyed accuracy of a colonial bullet. What happened at Charlottesville, Virginia is symptomatic of the ongoing depreciation of whiteness and the associated trauma of white identity. It goes beyond the narrative of getting rid of a few nasty white nationalists who disturb the serenity of the American project, and overwhelms the very foundations of a nation-state that was (and has always been) an incubator for racialized class warfare and the womb of the disembodied man, Homo Icarus. 

 

BACON’S REBELLION

“All servants imported and brought into the Country…who were not Christians in their native Country…shall be accounted and be slaves. All Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves within this dominion…shall be held to be real estate. If any slave resist his master…correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction…the master shall be free of all punishment…as if such accident never happened.”

With these words, the Virginia General Assembly of 1705 codified white supremacy. The black or coloured indentured servant who might have been considered an employee with a few rights became the black or coloured slave. Those who identified as white were now placed on a pedestal above others – by virtue of their complexions. Blacks could no longer own arms, participate in protests, own property (property cannot own property), or participate in society as free men would. Shorn of agency, black people for generations to come would be treated as fractions of proper men, and white people came to occupy a socio-political platform that guaranteed them a place in the cosmic scheme of things black people would have to be reincarnated to attain.

The attitudes we see today towards minorities in the States…the unannounced feelings sneaking behind good intentions, distorting our notions of personal control, causing police officers to pull their triggers where danger is illusory, might trace its ancestry to those moments when statehood became an agent of racial control. But the history of white supremacy and negative racial relations is more nuanced than the mere declaration of law.

What instigated the first legislative assembly in the United States, the House of Burgesses, to enact such a law was a dramatic incident a few years prior. In 1676, the first uprising swept across some American colonies, beginning in Virginia. Nathaniel Bacon, a member of the ruling class, in a game of wits, led white indentured servants and black slaves against Governor William Berkeley, accusing him of betraying the commonality and the public good and monopolizing trade with the Indians. Historians believe his motivations were personal, but the occasion provided a platform for common dissent. With 500 followers, Bacon burned Jamestown – the first English settlement in the Americas – to the ground, forcing Berkeley’s men to retreat in shame. A stroke of bad luck, in form of dysentery, would take Bacon’s life and cause his followership to disintegrate. Though Berkeley would later win the battle and snuff out Bacon’s rebellion, the thought of a black and white alliance for economic justice would give the ruling class nightmares. The logic of the Virginia Slave Code of 1705 was that if blacks were lowered in the scheme of things, white people could turn their attention towards maintaining a status quo that pandered to them. The ruling class would never have to face the insecurity and threat of an insurrection if white people perceived themselves as members of a higher caste than blacks and Indians.

White identity became increasingly attached to the project of whiteness, which – mind you – was also detrimental to the diverse communities of people who by the fiat of anthropological research later came to be subsumed under a homogenous ‘white race’. Whiteness itself, distinct from white identity, is the colonial-capitalist project of extraction, conversion and occupation that – abstracted from the activities and practices of Europeans who explored ‘discovered’ lands for resources – became the dominant global order. Failing to satisfy the promise of finding fabulous gold in these lands, the British elites decided to rid the streets of London of their poor. They captured orphans and drunkards and layabouts, bundled them on ships, and sailed to the Americas. In an effort that would foreshadow the American Dream and the modern day bankers that peddle loans for the dream of owning a house and your own dream car, head-hunters sold the dream of owning large swathes of land in the new kingdom. The English people who bought into this dream imagined themselves as rich landowners with many hands working for them. Of course, upon reaching the Americas, alighting at Virginia, there were no lands except for a wealthy few. These displaced whites wandered westward seeking the promised heavens of lore, all to no avail. Their progeny, those now called ‘white trash’, would be marked with the seething rage of promises not kept.

The fainter origins of whiteness thus reveals its many iterations – ‘first’ as the displacement of white-identified people in Europe, next as the promulgation of caste laws that pretended to cater to white people at the expense of other ‘castes’, and then the dramatic globalization and reinforcement of those anxieties and traumas under the guise of ‘development’, ‘progress’ and ‘neoliberalism’. Of course, one must account for the influence of Judeo-Christian, Calvinian and Cartesian philosophies, which together contributed to a generational vocation to transcend the pagan materiality of the world and ensconce the self in a universal heaven. In a sense, whiteness was the ruse that coaxed people away from their relationships with soil and dirt, away from their affinities to the motions of the material world, away from their rituals of partnering with planet. Away from being broken, modest critters with (not ‘on’) a planet that is not dead or a mere tool for our growth fantasies.

Whiteness, the sermon of disembodiment, is the condition of intergenerational displacement that conspires against white, black, Indian and spotted bodies. Whiteness is the myth of Homo Icarus – the man it wrought. The one with dangling feet, afraid to alight on the ground for fear it might envelope it. That fear has become transmuted into an unnameable angst to keep fighting, to keep clamouring for a place in Valhalla, to show the shibboleth of white skins at heaven’s gates and demand entry, and – in the meantime – to force back the imagined hordes of non-white bodies that might replace them.  

 

NEOLIBERALISM AND THE CHANGING CONDITIONS OF WHITENESS

Tug at the web of white fragility and xenophobia today – the kind expressed by the ‘Unite the Right’ protesters at Charlottesville – and you’ll awaken deeply held fears about the scarcity of space.

There is never enough to go round in white spaces.

And so, the effort has always been to band together, to huddle around the ethos of commonality, and banish the cultural-phenotypic ‘other’ to the margins. What masquerades as pure hate is actually not pure at all – nothing is pure anything at crossroads. Instead ‘hate’ in this instance is an ecosystem of unresolved anxiety, centuries of displacement and wandering, the dark animus and schadenfreude gained from maltreating others believed to be ontologically inferior to you, and the longing to be truly met and embraced as the world experiences its ongoing upheavals. To summarily denounce this hate – while in keeping with what moral authorities must do – is, quite ironically, to lose an opportunity to excavate the shared histories, mangled hopes and desperate inclinations dwelling under the surface of things.

If we were to hang in a bit longer, to grant the hater some humanity (however difficult that is), we might excavate the ghosts whose bony fingers now point at neoliberalism as a site for painful elisions. Yes, neoliberalism is turning out to be a scam in the mould of those old European land scams that promised vagrants, derelicts and the poor a better life in the Americas. Perhaps nothing best describes this cycle of torment and oppression like the 2008 financial crisis, which revealed the inner workings of a global society stringed together on the nothingness and vapid promises of profit for profit sake. The lower class people, whose lives got sold to the highest bidders, are subjects of this same whiteness. And how they respond is Brexit, Trump and the wave of nativism that has swept across Europe in recent times.   

As drastic climate changes annul the cool period of weather stability which allowed industrial growth, and as new social and travel technologies disturb the neat boundaries between here and there, this and that, me and you, we collectively face new questions about the viability of the futures predicted to us. And white people – if ever there were such a homogenous thing – bear the initial marks of this dying dream in their bones. In ‘their’ bodies. I should really say ‘our’, not ‘their’ because even though I am a black-black man from West Africa, I am white (where ‘white’ is not necessarily white-identified or Caucasian, but a description of most of us who live divorced from land and community, and who are displaced by the modern project).

There is a clawing for the next, for resolution. There is an unbearable rage of existential blankness, a nothingness that desires to be filled with colours and roots and a belongingness that it cannot yet articulate. White identity – so intimately tied up to the project of capitalist expansionism, to civilizational ascension, to exclusivity and luxury – is being confronted by the order it helped create. Whiteness itself is facing its deepest traumas: in its universalism, a stunning specificity of things confronts it; in its quest for homogeneity and fundamentalisms, a hollowing precipice. A cavalcade of colours, black and brown and speckled white and not-so-white, proliferate its abiding angst and disturb its singular focus: to remake the world in its image and to make any other kind of meaning-making performance nonsensical, unless its institutions endorse it, mummify it or give lip-service to it.

 

DECOMMISSIONING WHITENESS

To address Charlottesville is to meet the implosion of white order and normativity. It is to go by way of a prevalent distrust in the political order, a coming to terms with the real limits to the power of neoliberalism to cater to our basic needs and yearnings as an ever-emerging co-species. It is to touch upon the silent racialized class war that is still being fought – only under other names and so invisibly as to now be expected. It is to exorcise the demons of fruitless wanderings and search for land. It is to meet those who are broken, who – like the rest of us who might claim some sanity or goodness to ourselves, who might consider ourselves on the right side of history, who might think of ourselves as progressive and welcoming to diversity – are not yet at home.

It is to meet whiteness in its diffracted and sophisticated agency, and hear it pose its riddles to us. Some of those riddles might be these: how do we respond to whiteness? What simmers just outside our view when hate springs in the heart of a Nazi sympathizer as he watches a black man cross the street? Who do we drag to the courts for betraying the trust of those displaced white people, who later became slaves instead of the owners of 50 acre plots of land in the new continent? And how does such justice take into account the displacement of the original inhabitants of America?

It bears repeating: the heart of hate is the universe of relationships it excludes. Crossroads teach us that. Nothing is ever singularly itself. I don’t mean that in a Freudian sense of suggesting some hidden truth or core reality behind objects or phenomena. I mean to say that relationships congeal to create things, which in turn are already in relationship with other phenomena creating other things. Only in a Cartesian-Christian sense does hate refer to an inscrutable ‘evil’ within that evokes the theo-psychological construct of choice/free will. I believe that the intergenerational trauma of displaced feet and the fears of replacement and the involutions of spacetime are churning absences we thought we were done with. The unresolved past has made a bold return, albeit slightly reiterated.

If I haven’t prattled on too long, then it might be obvious now that something else is needed as a response to Charlottesville. The cultural space to truly ‘stay with the trouble’ (to use Haraway’s phrase) of these complicated realities is not to be found in the mainstream – so to speak. It is to be found, we learn, at the borderlands. We must learn to listen for it.

The kind of work that needs to happen now, in order for racial healing to take place, will not be held by the combative punditry of CNN or be championed by the White House and the mass culture of occlusion it presently preserves. It will take place (and is already happening) in the cracks…in the between-spaces and borderland sanctuaries that understand that we often reiterate crisis and reinforce it even with the best of intentions; and, that healing is not a matter of banishing monsters but of embracing our alter egos – the wilds we often exile beyond our fences.

Some scholars are beginning to catch up with this: we are realizing that we are living in a post-structuralist, post-whiteness world, whose aspirations have to be redefined and reconfigured in light of what we now suspect to be true about ourselves and our place in nature. From manifold feminisms, new materialisms and the resuscitated study of indigenous wisdoms, to idea incubator collectives, street art performances, unschooling networks and queer festivals, we are seeing a composting of whiteness – a hospicing of the earth-wide enterprise that co-opted white identity as its liaison with skinned society and sought to dispel alterity.  

I think of this work – this utterly incoherent murmuration of platforms and practices and concerns and offerings – as a decommissioning of whiteness. I think of it as the regeneration of spaces for us to grieve, to celebrate, to eat together, and to learn anew how to relate to the world around us. This decommissioning of whiteness is decolonization. A reacquainting ourselves with roots – the tentacular things that tether us to terra firma, which we like Icarus believed ourselves to be free of. Let us remember that whiteness was/is the invitation to forget roots, to deny the significance of the multitude and the wilds, whose tendrils are our seams. You might as well call it a ‘lie’ – there’s some rhetorical advantage in such directness. Whiteness is a lie because it claims those who join the project of white-identified people are not indigenous. What of druids, the pagans, witches, the alchemists, and the magicians? Even modernity is the indigeneity of denying the significance of indigeneity. It is no less connected and entangled than isolated ‘tribes’ of people who have lived without modern technologies.

Decolonization is rehabilitating connections and making ‘new’ ones. This is not about restoring originals in a neat way. Even the ancient remembered is new. Remembering is re/membering or reconfiguring. The past is always yet to come.

Further down this road, decommissioning whiteness is the world’s work – the concerns of a larger self, something more ancient than humans, but inclusive of humans. It is not simply about removing structures, or removing racists, or excoriating white-identified people. It is not about defeating the other side or stopping hateful people. If the French Revolution teaches us anything it is that solutions are often how problems grow intelligent and perpetuate their agency. The impulse to stop whiteness in its tracks is itself occasioned by whiteness. It’s red meat for humans who still presume that the world is driven by their intentions, and passive until they swing into action. This is not up to us; there is no master toggle switch. Whiteness itself is not a simple choice, nor would ‘redemption’ be a matter of marching through heaven’s gates.[1]

 

ENTERING WHITE HOLES: RECUPERATING WHITE IDENTITY

Decommissioning whiteness goes hand in hand with recuperating white identity. Recuperating white identity is about de-framing whiteness, and disabusing white-identified persons of the idea that they are blank, without hope, alone, without succour or comfort, except they perform whiteness. It is about holding those bodies, becoming allies with the radicalized other, giving account for one’s indigeneity, and developing a muscly hospitality to hate. It is about other places of power, learning to grow our food, taking a meal to a neighbour’s place, and sharing our gifts with one another.

To characterize the kind of work needed to rehabilitate white identity would be difficult. However, one might employ the figure of a ‘white hole’. Black holes – though mysterious and inscrutable and contested – are well known and spoken about by physicists and sci-fi aficionados. White holes are less common, but no less tragic or consequential. A white hole is the anomalous orifice that opens up in the fabric of white expansionism, tearing apart its delicate embroidery – something that lies outside of the parameters of meaning for those within the project of whiteness (which includes people with white, black, brown and speckled skins). It is the edge of whiteness, its liminal boundary, evoking terror and morbid fear. It is its greatest hope.

Approaching a ‘white hole’ is how I would like to tell the story of how all of us – those of us gestating in the bellies of whiteness, white, brown, black and yellow – can recover an earth-honouring indigeneity and truly encounter the ghosts that have so long called for us to sit with the trouble that is the condition of our emergence.  

 

CONCLUDING: WE ARE COMING DOWN TO EARTH

If the practices I name feel small and commonplace, it is because they are. Racial relations will not turn on the dime of large gestures and grand events. They will – as the saying goes – not be televised. What needs to happen – what is already happening – is small and seemingly insignificant. Though ‘small’, in a crossroads framework, where the web of causality diffracts in unexpected ways, what we can do is already knitted with the cosmic and the monumental.

Charlottesville is a case study in hauntology. It cracked open the hidden cavities that were always there – bringing the absent to limelight and reifying the ghosts everyone thought were buried and gone. Even more importantly, it showed the impotency of conventional modes of engagement.

The larger story – one that will not be told on mainstream media – is the story of the orphan Homo Icarus, the wanderer, whose dangling feet and intergenerational angst have sought refuge; whose many skins have estranged others; and, whose only hope for flight lies in his fall…his fall to the earth and his splintering into many broken pieces. For when he is broken and ready, then the soil can do its sacred work.   

 

***

 

Bayo Akomolafe (Ph.D.) is author of These Wilds Beyond our Fences: Letters to My Daughter on Humanity’s Search for Home, Host of the annual immersive course We Will Dance with Mountains, and Chief Curator of The Emergence Network.

 

[1] Contrary to Baldwin’s idea that whiteness is a choice, since those to whom it was sold can walk out of it, I contend that ‘choice’ wasn’t the only instantiating factor in the selection of people into racial categories. Neither did whiteness mean the same thing to everyone who ‘bought’ it.

 

18 Comments
  • Sue Stack on August 19, 2017

    Dear Bayo, Thankyou! I am standing here at the cross roads providing space for the brokenness to just rest a moment. To reach out my hand to it, and invite it into my heart. WHen we come from a place of recognising our entanglements, it doesn’t necessarily make things less entangled, but can change the quality of the entanglements, and create even stronger ones that we have not noticed before. THankyou for the hard work in birthing and sharing this fragile and hidden perspective that has so much hope for us all! Sue

    • Bayo Akomolafe on August 19, 2017

      Dear Sue…sister…thank you for reading it and sharing your thoughts and life-affirming work of standing at the crossroads.

  • Maureen Green on August 19, 2017

    What a thoughtful intelligent piece. I hadn’t considered thinking that way but rather like many around the world condemned the white supremacists and KKK and pro Nazis. If only we could enter into the productive dialogue at your ‘crossroads’. I pray we can for humanity. Thank you.

    • Bayo Akomolafe on August 19, 2017

      Thank you Maureen. I shared it with some fragility – maybe some fear about how it will be received. I am glad it is finding receptive hearts. Here’s a different but resonant take from a brother of mine, Chris Bowers…a Facebook post he called “I am Nazi Too”. I think he said what I needed to say, with fewer words and less philosophical jargon!

      I Am A Nazi Too
      I realized I had been turning my head away from white supremacists (and by extension white supremacism). I’d see the news report and I’d see the clichéd images of young, strong white men spewing, seething weapons, shields and torches in hand.
      “Idiots” I’d say. Or “such lost souls” on my better days. Both responses were a turning away. Then I saw a news report in which a reporter was embedded through an entire day with a group, a pack of these young men. One of them was interviewed at length. This man talked about his belief in superiority. He talked about rage at a perceived loss of economic and social power. He talked about his weapons. His voice, it’s tone, its steadfastness, it’s complete lack of contrition- well this was more terrifying to me than the chants, the torches or the slogans.

      He then talked about his readiness to kill and his belief that people will need to die for the world to be good again. Immediately a canyon of contradiction opened up in my soul. I could see the absurdity of his logic- that you can simply stamp out the impure elements of a society and return to some pre-conditioned state of unadulterated humanity or strength or culture. I could feel the ridiculousness of this thought. But all that was just a precursor to this thought: I need to kill this fucking maniac. This guy is going to destroy my community. He is robbing the world of their god-given right to peace and freedom. If we can just get rid of guys like this then we could finally live in peace. Guess he and I have something in common after all.

      What do I do with my own fundamentalism? My own capacity for violence? My own completely righteous and some would say even justified thirst for vengeance? What do I do with my belief in purity? My own rage and the injustices of power? Though I too may have a capacity for fundamentalist violence, the many layers of separation I put between his vitriol and my love feel like some sort of desperate assurance that I am not like him. Yet I grew up drinking the same dirty, racist, imperial, and colonial water that he drinks. It is not as if I have never thought myself superior because of my skin color or my ability to think certain ways, navigate the world so efficiently. It is not as if I have never done violence to the being of another.

      This inquiry is not an invitation to moral relativism or equivalence, or some sort of spiritualized/psychologized attempt at “having compassion for the enemy”. I don’t pretend to have an answer. I am trying to welcome complication in the service of a better, more honest, more effective response. This is deeply unknown territory. I feel lost. It is disorienting to see aspects of myself in someone I perceive to be so different than myself. I can hear my anti-racist AntiFa friends shouting down my sedition. I can hear them arresting me, trying me and judging me not fit to be an ally, an accomplice or a revolutionary. I can hear them sentence me to membership in the club of their enemy. So he and I again find ourselves with something in common, seemingly exiled and thus disempowered.

      It goes deeper than saying I might have something in common with my perceived enemy. It is less about common ground as it is groundlessness. “When you are standing on the ground of a conclusion, you are suffering” my old friend once told me. I hated him for that. Where am I? What is this place? This dark forest in which my spiritual poverty is commiserate with people that would kill me and the ones I love. And if I’ve decided that I cannot act on my fanatic impulses, what then? How do I protect myself and those I love, those I’ve already taken so much from? What is this dark place?

  • Sheridan Kennedy on August 19, 2017

    Beautifully articulated Bayo – a dense and complex entanglement of concepts that echoes the nature of what you’re communicating! As I read I’m reminded of Deleuze and Guattari writing of becomings and bodies without organs. I always suspected there was something of an ‘indigenous’ sensibility that they were trying to cut through to, even as they drowned us in philosphy-speak. An embracing of the trickster, playing with words to traverse the boundaries of our own language! Charlottesville and the many responses I’ve seen to it – from Brene Brown to Arnold Schwarznegger to Layla Saad to yourself – have me needing to express my own small, feet in the soil, contribution to these acts of becoming ‘unwhite’: we forget, have been trained to blindness – there are no white people. Pale skins come in many shades of brown, beige and pink. Never in white. Ably demonstrated by artist Angelica Dass’s project Humanae. People keep identifying as ‘white’ but why are we (of liberal persuasions) PC’ed into using terms like cysgendered, and yet never challenge a simple facade of there being such a thing as a ‘white’ person? Yes, as you express so well, whitening was an enterprise and enveloped many shades of European. And one that we need to de-tangle ourselves from. So why do we still support it by failing to declare a simple truth – there are NO white people. Anywhere. So there is one small move we can all make that will contribute to the roots up revolution – for all European-esque people, let’s stop identifying ourselves as ‘white people’. Maybe this needs more explaining before people quite get that something so simple can make such as difference…and let me also add that denying the appearance of whiteness is not to deny the acts of whiteness, or it’s privileges. But in order to let go of its privileges let’s recognise we exist in a spectrum not a duality of colour.

    • Bayo Akomolafe on August 19, 2017

      I truly appreciate your feedback Sheridan – but, even more so, your thoughts about being ‘white’. I agree – those colours are abstractions that do not pay homage to the promiscuity and plasticity and mottled incoherence of our skins. Our skins are doing much more than sticking to one colour; they are weaving threads with weather, nodding to the sun, turning red with emotion, becoming frigid, becoming water, becoming dust. No one is plainly ‘white’, ‘black’ or ‘brown’. We are a becoming-each other, and language fails to capture the complexity of what is happening at our biological/phenotypic borders. And that’s an interesting thing to admit – that our borders are dynamic should give us room for pause to consider what we exclude in the name of purity. Perhaps, like you say, there is something to renouncing ‘white-ness’ as identity. Perhaps there is something to saying there are no white people. However, if merely declared, the costs of that might be greater than the perceived advantages. Maybe we let the soil teach us. Maybe a slow composting needs to happen. Maybe the closer, and more passionately we embrace our ‘colours’, the more they’ll splinter and crack up, making room for new ways of thinking about race we do not yet know how to name.

  • Sheridan Kennedy on August 19, 2017

    Oh and I should add that further to your footnote on whether or not whiteness is a choice, I believe that in the past it was not since it was an institutionalised in a time when many didn’t understand how they were being manipulated, in a post-strucutral world we need to recognise the ruse of identifying as ‘white’ and walk away from it. Because if we are indeed to land, to plant our feet again (and I love this analogy and totally agree with it) then we need to see – and be – what is real not what is constructed.

  • Kaye Porter on August 19, 2017

    Thank you for taking the time to write this up and share your thoughts with us.

    Have you ever come across something that both seems so completely simple and illuminating; yet feels so huge and overwhelmingly complex?

    I think that is how I’m feeling.

    So many insights, and feeling almost overwhelmed by how BIG this is. But it’s a little less dark at the same time.

    OK, I’m completely babbling and probably not conveying anything helpful. So…

    Thank you for writing this. You’ve provided a type of healing that I don’t know how to express or understand.

    • Bayo Akomolafe on August 19, 2017

      We all could do with some healing these days, Kaye. I think that comes with a rehabilitation of thought and a creative liberation of our ability to notice our rhizomatic entanglements with all things. Today, much to my surprise, I learned that Native Americans – the Chickasaw Nation to be precise – also owned slaves…African slaves. It was like a cognitive shutdown, because my schema had always identified Native Americans as victims. But here was a side I hadn’t known to be true, except theoretically – that even victims are not ‘pure’. That power is not organized from the top to the bottom, it is diffractive, broken, and spread everywhere. I suppose healing comes when we hold the other not as an absolute ‘other’, but as aspects of ourselves we haven’t met yet.

  • Karen Sella on August 19, 2017

    Thank you for this thoughtful, nuanced, and truly beautiful writing. Somewhere in the atmosphere of my being, I felt these words, but they had not yet landed with your clarity.

    • Bayo Akomolafe on August 20, 2017

      I got it in the atmosphere too, Karen. Phil Collins was right: we can all feel something in the air!

  • Patty Kay on August 20, 2017

    Wow. What an honor to read you! You’ve left me more than naked and exposed. I’m de-skinned or something. Thank you for sharing.

    • Bayo Akomolafe on August 20, 2017

      Thank you for reading it Patty. This ‘de-skinning’ is what…I think…needs to happen for many of us.

  • Josh Pendergrass on August 22, 2017

    Thank you for this piece of deep empathy! I am white. I’m living in this world carrying around deep alienation and pain. I think that underneath the destructive symptoms (racism and other forms of hatred) is a shared ecological pain. I am having trouble finding these cracks that you speak of where genuine healing work is taking place. What I see around me is more and more tribalism, if you’re not with us you’re against us mentality.

    • Bayo Akomolafe on August 23, 2017

      Josh, I love that you pay attention to an ecological pain ‘underneath’ today’s most shocking displays of racism and hatred. This coincides beautifully with my observation that a decolonization trajectory is needed. A coming down to earth. The kind of soaring we need to do today is the kind that roots do (roots do not suffer our myopic displacement and fixation with what’s above; there’s sky not found in the brown ground). If this is the case, and I think it so, then I believe sanctuaries are popping up everywhere. Earth stations. Grounding places. Queer zones. I’d like to invite you to consider joining my course. Visit course.bayoakomolafe.net

  • Cara on September 12, 2017

    This is the first time I have read your work. I feel like you have put your finger on something I have felt, but have been unable to articulate. I am Canadian. My paternal grandfather told me that our family has been here so long he didn’t know where they came from (and from what I have gathered, it’s a little bit of here and a little bit of there, really almost anywhere in Western Europe). I have always felt a lack of identity of some sort. I live far away from any other family members, and moved around a lot as a child, so there isn’t even that “place” to cling to. I have always disliked being categorized as “white”, because what does that even mean? Nothing, and nothing good. I understand that my skin colour affords me privileges. It also comes with a heavy dose of guilt. But certainly no shared cultural identity or pride in my heritage. And is “whiteness” a skin colour, or a place/ heritage? Is my dark skinned spouse “white” because his grandparents are from Italy? Or is he not, because nobody seems to be able to recognize his shade, and he is frequently questioned about his heritage? How about our children, who range in shades of brown, the youngest of whom is closer to my whiteness? How can we create roots as humans of this Earth? What is there to connect us together when there seems to be so much to divide us? Very insightful writing, if a little bit over my head. Where do we go from here?

    • Bayo Akomolafe on September 12, 2017

      That question – “where do we go from here?” – is exactly what I think this essay serves as a background for…and yet queers a bit: it is now no longer a question of what we do or the ideas we think are ours to wield, since finding roots is also a tacit admission of shared agency with the nonhuman world. In other words, decentering ourselves means the questions of indigeneity, where we come from, and what we do with that information, are now infinitely complex matters. The mere finding of answers is no longer enough in a world that resists resolution. Speaking from a ‘crossroads’ philosophy, our identities are not static things we can provide final answers to; our heritage is relational and still-yet-to-come. My wife and family are also ‘bodily ambiguous’ people; I’m probably the only one that people can comfortably situate as ‘black’. But it is ‘becoming’ difficult to box people in. I think this difficulty is being recognized as our skins spew forth new hues and shades that disturb the easy categories of ‘black’, ‘white’ and ‘other’ that we are used to being in. But – to consider your question – how can we create roots as humans of this earth? – I would say that the answers to that may not be available yet. We are collectively at the edge of a universe still regenerating itself, still exploring itself. I personally think that decolonization work – the kind I speak about when I refer to ‘decommissioning whiteness’ and ‘coming down to earth’ – is a critical gathering place for these kinds of concerns. This gathering place will be riddled with irony, paradox, shadows, dark spots, and precipices. Knowing what to do here will not always be clear – and we will often sabotage ourselves or repeat the same dynamics in our efforts to evade them. We can trust, however, that there are others apart from us at work.

  • Kathy Kise on October 16, 2017

    As from the first time I found your voice (but, did not know it was you), I am attracted to your way of expressing our situation with the use of ‘a non-dual framework, such as one described by indigenous notions of crossroads, entanglements, intersectionality, diffraction and intra-action’. The metaphorical conception of a ‘mangle’ appealed to my already messy situation in trying to make peace with my own sociological research around ‘how people and things produce subjective wellbeing at institutional, community and personal fields of play’ followed with Actor-Network-Theory (ANT) which as one of its many qualities, helps to diminish the ‘white wash’ that might have been applied without ANT. I have been composting my findings after losing my mind from empirically ‘withnessing’ the queerness of how TIME operates. What a lonely year that was (lol). Thank you for leading me to Karen Barad! That year is very retrievable in the ‘thick-now’. Your layerings into my compost heap are helping!

    THIS essay explains a lot of what I have been bumping up against all my life without a language for it, as well as a very real personal endeavor to develop a ‘muscly hospitality to hate’. I found Matt Kahn’s radical (ninja) spirituality of ‘loving whatever arises’ to be most helpful for this endeavour along with the very real belief that ‘I am that’ no matter what I see before me, and honestly, I love me, so why not that? Why not, let me count the ways (she says laughingly with no intention to do so). It doesn’t move me, it never has, hate makes me ill, though ‘anger’ has helped me clean the house more than any other emotion for over sixty years, as well as ‘move about’ appropriately.

    Early on, I discovered a generalisation that has not let me down while holistically focusing on three fields of play called institutional, community and personal. It is BROKEN at the institutional, It is BULGING at the community and it is SCHIZOPHRENIC on the personal. These generalisations help me focus my energy. And, their concepts correlate with NO TIME at the institutional, CLAWING BACK TIME within community and TIMING OUT on the personal. Hence, I know, I am over-generalising, but it works for me at the moment, I do not feel we can find resolutions from a top-down mechanism, nor can we figure this out alone, but only through lateral communal, co-creation, might we find the beginnings of ‘the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible’. Your statement, ‘There is a clawing for the next, for resolution’ made me sit up and take note. This ‘white hole’ of which you speak is filled with community intra-actions whose spectrum is a rainbow of alternative practices focused on ‘clawing back time’, that are not shared with a wide enough audience, and cannot be if we continue to interact (as opposed to intra-acting) with the invisible henchman, the white elephant in the room…TIME as it has been taught to us. Please forgive me here, I do not KNOW what I am talking about, I am feeling my way with my toes while hanging upside down. But, what if, what if we held more conversations around our universal angst around what time is, how it operates and how we might slip and slide along this complex continuum (neatly and inappropriately referred to simply as TIME) toward an amicable existence within its multitudinous dimensions by intra-acting with TIME? Have I lost the plot? Perhaps. Irrespective, I am so grateful for this space in which to do so. Much love to you Bayo!

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Falling might very well be flying – without the tyranny of coordinates.