Homo Icarus – Bayo Akomolafe

(To read this on Bayo’s website)

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.

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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.

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