On Discerning An Impossible Object
Kameron BashiEssays / Number 99
The first friend I ever made at school was a boy named Gordon. He wore jeans and flannels, and his cheeks were round and always red. We got along well, and one day I suggested that we hang out after school some time. He agreed and said that he liked that idea, adding that if I went over to his house I’d have to be careful because he had a dog, and his dog didn’t like niggers. I told him that was fine with me. I knew nothing of niggers, and so had no plans to bring any with me. Excited, I went home and told my mom. Since we didn’t have a dog, I was glad to have the chance to play with Gordon’s. It was a big German Shepherd, I told her, and it didn’t like niggers. What are niggers? I asked. I don’t recall what she said, but I never went to Gordon’s after school. Other than his round ruddy cheeks and blue flannel shirt, I don’t remember much else about him.
I couldn’t really understand why I couldn’t go. I had watched a fair amount of public television, and everyone there liked having friends, and wanted friends, and wanted everyone else to have them. Gordon and I wanted to be friends, and what prevented us from doing so could not be clearly accounted for. I had a vague sense that Gordon and I were being punished but, up until that point, punishment had always been marked by an event, a boundary that had been transgressed, a violation of some well-defined and much-discussed code of conduct. But the punishment we suffered seemed unconnected to anything we had said or done. The punishment floated freely and, being connected to no one, there was no one to be guilty or ashamed. I did not yet know a world in which punishment was untethered from crime and could choose its targets freely. It made no sense, and I could not understand how any of it applied to me.
Through the years, my mother would occasionally attempt to remind me (warn me) of this untethered punishment that existed and was always there (somewhere) waiting to find me. Because I could not understand the nature of this punishment, I told her that she was wrong, tried to explain to her that the world wasn’t like she thought it was, that it wasn’t how it used to be, that things were different, that it was the ’90s. I told her that, being from another era, she had no way of understanding the things that were happening now. I loved my mom dearly, but resented her for seeing the world so wrongly. Whenever she tried to warn me, I told her that she was mistaken, that she was talking about things that didn’t exist, that she needed to calm down and relax. She would lift her eyebrows diplomatically, and let the conversation go. When she went for a long time without bringing it up, I’d assume she had come around to seeing things my way, finally understanding how much things had improved since she was young, how generous the world could be when she didn’t assume the worst of it. But we moved around and lived in places where I always had white friends, and any mention of me going to their homes could cause a flicker of her old, suspicious imagination.
To her, of course, any of these friends might have been just like Gordon, any of them could have lived with a large and possibly ferocious animal that had been trained to hate me. And it followed that they, my friends, might have been trained to hate me as well, however much they had temporarily suspended or ignored or resisted the presence of that hatred. She did not ever forget about the possibility of the free-floating punishment being exercised on me, but to me it hardly even registered. Because the punishment had not been exercised, and because I was too young to grasp its implications, I did not acknowledge it as an ongoing fact of my existence—mostly because she had once, at a crucial time, protected me from it.
My life unfolded for another three decades without significant racial incident, and it wasn’t until recently that I have managed to understand that Gordon, a polite boy in jeans and a flannel, had explicitly introduced a relationship that, until then, had only been implied, and remained in the background of my life. Because I didn’t really understand the terms of the deal, I wasn’t able to fully recognize what had happened with Gordon. Even when I began to learn about the history of America, whiteness—as the explicit cultural embrace of ‘white’ skin and ‘white’ heritage as a standard and ideal—was, to me, something that had largely occurred in the past. Though I was aware of the occasional eruption of racial violence, these seemed minor to me, and not particularly worthy of understanding or investigation.
Recent years in the United States and elsewhere have shown me that whiteness is not a negligible subject and, though there is something about it that resists discovery, it revealed its immensity almost as soon as I began to inquire into it. It was not unlike an abyss—the longer I stared into it, the more it stared back into me and revealed itself; the more I saw, the more it said, and the more I had to say in response. After some years of acclimation, I am familiar enough with it now that I am no longer frustrated, surprised, or disturbed when I encounter its empty structures. I see now that whiteness is many things, but in its most general sense it is an impossible object, a paradox that is both rational and incomprehensible, a fortress of the relative built from the ever-crumbling stones of an absolute that cannot be realized. I know now that whiteness is a system of ambiguity, and must necessarily be tied to an ambiguous standard. Ambiguity is both the power and the weakness of whiteness; it is the goal and the means of reaching the goal. This ambiguity confuses the human being to take its power, and the ambiguous relation thrives on the chaos that ensues from the heist.
Over the course of my life I have attempted to explain to many people, friends and family, that there is no such thing as a white person because ‘white’ people do not exist. Human beings belong to a single species, and establishing the group of those who are ‘white’ is a purely conceptual exercise. The ‘white’ are symbolic, imagined, and untouchable, floating just beyond the reach of any finality. But whiteness—the idea of a distinct being that is ‘white,’ and the cultural practices that structure, support, and sustain this ‘white’ being as distinct—exists everywhere.
Whiteness polices the boundaries of being and having according to standards it is not possible for everyone to meet. In order to exist, whiteness must designate: it names what does and does not belong. Whiteness creates and maintains the distinctions required to leverage and consolidate the power it needs to continue distinguish-ing itself as separate. Whiteness is not ‘white’ people, it is a widely practiced system of reference in which those designated ‘white’ are given to enjoy advantage because they are symbolic representatives of all that is good. They are the healthy, the wealthy, the clean, the fair, the centered, the sober, the rational, and the diligent. Whiteness is happy, whiteness is innocent, and whiteness is wholesome. Whiteness is good, and the ‘white’ are deserving of all that is deemed good. The ‘white’ are what we (should) all aspire to be; the ‘white’ are the light at the end of the tunnel.
Whiteness cannot be equated with ‘white’ people because the ‘white’ are not a people. Whiteness is a power relation, enacted and obscured by cultural practices. In our civilization, whiteness is the spirit and the mask of a racialized economy, the practical means and ends that organize economic expression through racialized relationships. In establishing America’s hierarchy of power, whiteness, while mostly civil and polite, is characterized by occasional outbursts of violence and discipline. Whiteness rarely presents itself as an extreme position or an unruly insistence; most commonly it is just a deference to and a preference for whatever is called (or appears to be) ‘white.’
Whiteness is not a racial distinction, it is the distinction of those who employ the concept of “race” to meaningfully distinguish people, or to distinguish people’s meaning. Whiteness creates the distinction, and enforces the boundaries that manage its meaning in order to separate itself from those who are not ‘white.’ The inferiors who deviate from whiteness (and the ‘impure’ who degrade it) are treated as stains on the otherwise clean linen of humankind. Whether consciously or unconsciously espoused, such a logic allows the ‘white,’ i.e., those who believe themselves to be ‘white,’ to legitimize the place they occupy in our society without reference to the violent actions that put them there. In the racializing mind of whiteness, the world—its wealth, its resources, its happiness, its difficulty—is organized more or less as it should be, and it is not at all necessary to go into the reasons why it is the way it is.
I am less interested in the fact that some people believe themselves to be ‘white,’ than I am in the interpersonal processes that seek to arbitrarily assign visibility, meaning, and value according to nonsensical standards, and that keep the world on a tight leash in order to support and sustain those standards. These processes are often practiced by the so-called ‘white,’ but also by those so enamored by whiteness that they seek to share in its power. It is sometimes possible to worm one’s way in to whiteness, though part of the practice is to put distance between oneself and all those designated as inferior. Associating with the distinctly inferior can prevent invitation into the desirable group of the ‘white’ and can even cause a long-standing membership to be revoked. Whiteness is a kind of loyalty program with a robust schedule of rewards, but to effectively retain membership one must willingly regulate (or allow more dedicated others to regulate) the not-white world’s proximity to its power and abundance.
Whiteness may be the fundamental value or qualification by which our society is organized, establishing a norm from which all deviations are deemed undesirable, and so must be brought into alignment with the standard. If this is unsuccessful, they are to be ignored, punished, or destroyed. I do not write of ‘white’ people, but of the belief in the value of such an organization, of how whiteness as a value is reified through cultural practice in our efforts to produce and distribute power (nearly always alienated negotiating power in the form of money).
Whiteness racializes, which is to say it dehumanizes and, in the U.S., it is a primary weapon of social warfare. Whether subtly or openly violent, whiteness is an aggressive preference for that which has been designated ‘white.’ Even then, from a certain angle it is not an aggression against the racialized and inferior ‘other’ so much as an aggressive attachment to the dream of its own distinction, in defense of which it is willing to kill. Whiteness is a dream of power and superiority, a dream of omnipo-tence, a dream that in seeking to realize and instantiate itself will commit and justify any level of violence. From a thoughtless rebuff in a mundane interaction, to bullying on the playground, to shame and humiliation, to whipping, dragging, burning, hanging, and castration. Whiteness is varied, and mostly unperturbed by the torture and mutilation that are, in certain respects, lighter punishments than the incarceration or death it has always been happy to carry out. Whiteness welcomes and employs all forms of violence. It should not surprise us that the most potent weapons we’ve yet invented were used against those who are not ‘white.’
The dream of whiteness avails itself of the power to police dissent, and can crush whatever does not willingly support and sustain its claim to inherent deserving. There are no ‘white’ people, only a self-identified subset of human beings wielding and abusing a power they insist on and agree to, a power earned through nothing other than their insistence, their agreement, and their willingness to use violence. Whiteness is a form of mob rule, and those who believe themselves ‘white’ wield this power as haphazardly as one would expect from any arbitrary collection of people. The ‘white race’ is incoherent as it is comprised of individuals that have almost nothing to do with one another, and no common interest beyond their dream of being superior, of having all they have and all they want, just because. The combination of the dream and a robust numerical majority have allowed the ‘white’ to rule as incoherently and carelessly as they wish. To be considered and treated as ‘white’ means that one does not need to be careful; a certain level of recklessness is tolerated because whiteness is a political alliance designed to prevent the so-called ‘white’ from suffering the most brutal outcomes imposed by our economic regime. One of the primary luxuries of the dream of the ‘white’ is an utter lack of accountability. Because it is a kind of mob rule, whiteness need not be particularly intelligent or wise; it survives by separating itself from those who must suffer most when things go wrong. Historically, as a social agreement and a widespread cultural practice, whiteness has embraced a profound and lasting irresponsibility. As a system of ambiguity, it constantly bends the rule of law since, in the end, ‘the law’ is reserved for those denied the negotiating power to overcome it.
I am less interested in a people that does not exist than I am in the dream that has organized the United States, the dream of determination, the dream of being an exceptional, sovereign individual, free to roam and do as one pleases. Because the dream underwrites all our national platitudes, I am interested in examining the hollowness of a culture that claims to believe in things that it never brings to fruition. The United States has always been in arrested moral development, and it might be said that the dream of the ‘white’ is the primary obstacle to our maturity; it lubricates our national culture of decadence, and slickens the chute of our collective decline. For it is decadence to see the world as nothing but a chaotic but predictable field of objects of price, it is decadence to render the world as nothing more than the fluctuating aggregate of human desire, constrained and directed in its confrontation with power. It is decadence to see the world as a purely human phenomenon and in purely human terms. It is decadence to arbitrarily identify sub-groups of a single species and submit them to conditions that express nothing but how they have been historically treated.
Whiteness invests in a fantasy of superiority to avoid confronting the emptiness of its logic and the violence at the root of its power. The fantasy, the avoidance, the emptiness, and the violence are the primary sponsors of a widespread decline. Of course, for whiteness to confess—to admit to entertaining a persistent wish for uncontested power in order to avoid confronting the bankruptcy and dysfunctional ineptitude of its organizing principles—would be tantamount to admitting a mistake, which whiteness cannot do. Whiteness cannot be wrong because to be wrong would make it inferior, and inferiority is precisely what whiteness exists to distinguish itself from. Whiteness cannot both exist and admit to being an inadequate way of living in and organizing the world. To do so would mean abandoning the conceptual ground that has—visibly and invisibly, knowingly and unknowingly—historically secured the identity and the everyday reality of the ‘white.’ To question whiteness would mean opening up to an unsettling (and perhaps bottomless) disorientation that could end with the loss of the only world the ‘white’ know, the only one they have taught themselves to believe in. Whiteness carefully evades this disruption, and might even be held together and molded by its fear of exposure; it may or may not live its entire life scared, threatened with the loss of its foundational lie.
It took me thirty years to see what my mother had long been trying to point out to me, and only a moment to realize that she had always been right. I have attempted to mitigate the pain of this knowledge by searching for something that would draw a clearer boundary around it. I wanted to know what I was looking at so that I might know what to do. It is my opinion that whiteness, and everything that conditions and flows from it, is nothing but a form of pain—the social, economic, psychological, historical, ancestral, and cosmic pain that comes when the human disavows human being. But the disavowal of the human, however regrettable, strikes me as both profoundly human and not yet human, and so I do not blame whiteness for being what it is. To me, it is nothing more than the contemporary costume of power, the current fashion of an old dynamic, playing out in this time and in this place. Insofar as whiteness is the disavowal of human collectivity—the refusal to acknowledge the fact of a single species with a single destiny—whiteness is both a moment in history and one of many ways that the human expresses the horror of human being, expresses horror at the fact of human being. Whiteness is a dream that regulates the conditions of a nightmare, a dream of power that insulates us from the truth of our powerlessness.
In recent years, my head has been full of questions as I try to posit a foundation for the world I see and am forced, at least provisionally, to believe in. The answers are nebulous and tentative, but the recurring question is plain enough: What distinguishes the so-called ‘white’? I do not know, and I doubt that I will ever know, but I feel better for having asked, and for having tried to explain what I am asking and why. To find the answer is to discover an impossible object.
Because ‘white’ people can exist in only a discursive, symbolic way, I write not to them, but to those who have, like me, at one time or another believed in the fantasy that made them real. I write for the person that I was: a five-year-old boy excited to have made a friend at school, only to be threatened and imagined (in every mind but mine) as the subject of a vicious and violent attack. I write for the one who could not fathom the punishment that awaited him, the brutality reserved for him simply for being alive. As a child, I could not believe that I had come into the world only to find myself condemned to violence. Back then I did not at all understand the nature of cruelty, nor that it lent so much force to the thought and activity that shaped the territory I foolishly
thought of as home.
Kameron Bashi was born in Oklahoma City. He holds an MFA from Brown University and a PhD from the University of Denver. He currently lives in Los Angeles where he has recently completed a collection of essays describing and examining whiteness as a psychological, moral, and spiritual phenomenon. He is also at work on his first novel. Follow him on Twitter: @kombushiImage by Rubén Rodriguez