The End Of White Innocence Discussion Paper
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The End Of White Innocence Discussion Paper
MUCH OF MY YOUTH WAS spent looking into the menagerie of white children. Sometimes I was allowed inside, by visiting a friend’s house, and I marveled at the harmonious balance of order and play: the parents who spoke to each other in a reasonable tone of voice, the unruly terrier who blustered his way into the home and was given a biscuit. Not at all like my home, which was tense and petless, with sharp witchy stenches, and a mother who hung all our laundry outside, and a grandmother who fertilized our garden plot of scallions with a Folgers can of her own urine. Occasionally late at night, I awoke to my name being called, at first faintly, then louder, which I knew was my mother. I rushed out of bed and ran to my parents’ bedroom to break up yet another fight getting out of hand.
At school the next day, I distinctly remember the mild sun and the pomegranate trees, fully fruited in November. I sat there at lunch, my classmates’ laughter far off and watery in my ears clogged by little sleep. If reality was a frieze, everyone else was a relief, while I felt recessed, the declivity that gave everyone else shape. Any affection I had for my youth was isolated to summers in Seoul: my grandmother bandaging my fingernails with balsam flower petals to stain my nails orange; the fan rotating lazily in the wet heat while my aunts, uncles, cousins, and I all slept on the floor in the living room; and the cold shock of water when my aunt washed me while I squatted naked in hard rubber slippers.
I am now the mother of a four-year-old daughter. Memories of my own childhood flash for a second as I’m combing my daughter’s hair or when I bathe her at night. What’s odder is that memories don’t come when I expect them summoned. Because my parents never read to me, I first felt a deficit of weight instead of being flooded with nostalgic memories when I began reading to my
daughter at bedtime. There should be a word for this neurological sensation, this uncanny weightlessness, where a universally beloved ritual tricks your synapses to fire back to the past, but finding no reserve of memories, your mind gropes dumbly, like the feelers of a mollusk groping the empty ocean floor.
Reading to my daughter, I see my own youth drifting away while hers attaches firmly to this country. I am not passing down happy memories of my own so much as I am staging happy memories for her. My parents did the same for me, but their idea of providing was vastly more fundamental: food, shelter, school. When they immigrated here, they didn’t simply travel spatially but through time, traveling three generations into the future. Not that I would be so crude as to equate the West with progress, but after the war, Korea was cratered like the moon, and the West had amenities, like better medical facilities, that Korea lacked. Boys, for instance, didn’t last on my mother’s side. My grandmother lost sons, my aunts lost sons, and my own brother, before I was born, died at six months from a weak heart while my mother was giving him a bath.
Rather than look back on childhood, I always looked sideways at childhood. If to look back is tinted with the honeyed cinematography of nostalgia, to look sideways at childhood is tainted with the sicklier haze of envy, an envy that ate at me when I stayed for dinner with my white friend’s family or watched the parade of commercials and TV shows that made it clear what a child should look like and what kind of family they should grow up in.
The scholar Kathryn Bond Stockton writes about how the queer child “grows sideways,” because queer life often defies the linear chronology of marriage and children. Stockton also describes children of color as growing sideways, since their youth is likewise outside the model of the enshrined white child. But for myself, it is more accurate to say that I looked sideways at childhood. Even now, when I look back, the girl hides from my gaze, deflecting my memories to the flickering shadow play of her fantasies.
To look sideways has another connotation: giving “side eyes” telegraphs doubt, suspicion, and even contempt. I came of age being bombarded with coming-of-age novels in school. Unlike the works of William Shakespeare or Nathaniel Hawthorne, which the teacher forced upon us like vitamin-rich vegetables, these novels were supposedly a treat, because we could now identify
with the protagonists. That meant that not only must I cathect myself to the entitled white protagonist but then mourn for the loss of his precious childhood as if it were my own in overrated classics like Catcher in the Rye.
My ninth-grade teacher told us that we would all fall in love with Catcher in the Rye. The elusive maroon cover added to its mystique. I kept waiting to fall in love with Salinger’s cramped, desultory writing until I was annoyed. Holden Caulfield was just some rich prep school kid who cursed like an old man, spent money like water, and took taxis everywhere. He was an entitled asshole who was as supercilious as the classmates he calls “phony.”
But beyond his privilege, I found Holden’s fixation with childhood even more alien. I wanted to get my childhood over with as quickly as possible. Why didn’t Holden want to grow up? Who were these pure and precocious children who wore roller skates that needed a skate key? What teenage boy had a fantasy of catching children in a field of rye lest they happened to fall off a cliff to adulthood?
The alignment of childhood with innocence is an Anglo-American invention that wasn’t popularized until the nineteenth century. Before that in the West, children were treated like little adults who were, if they were raised Calvinist, damned to hell unless they found salvation. William Wordsworth is one of the main architects of childhood as we sentimentalize it today. In his poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” Wordsworth sees the child as full of wonder and wiser than man because in his uncorrupted state the child is closer to God: “I see the heavens laugh with you in your jubilee.” Wordsworth may be one of the main architects of nostalgia as well. By writing the poem from the adult’s perspective, he sees the boy as a surrogated vessel into which the adult, consternated by his failures, pours his reveries.
The legacy of Holden Caulfield’s arrested development has dominated the American culture industry, from the films of Steven Spielberg and Wes Anderson to the fiction of Jonathan Safran Foer. In the mid-aughts, there was even a short- lived movement called New Sincerity, where artists and writers thought that it would be a radical idea to feel. “To feel” entailed regressing to one’s own childhood, when there was no Internet and life was much purer and realer. Though they prized authenticity above all else, they stylized their work in a vaguely repellent faux-naïf aesthetic that dismissed politics for shoe-gazing self-
interest. Wes Anderson was once classified as a New Sincerity filmmaker. I recently
rewatched his Moonrise Kingdom, which, as one blogger noted, is as pleasurable and light as a macaron. Filtered through aging-postcard lighting, Moonrise Kingdom is as much an exhibition of found nostalgic souvenirs as it is a story, with memorable curios like a sky-blue portable record player and a Wilson tennis ball canister of nickels. Anderson’s fastidious Etsy auteurship is to be admired, but Anderson is a collector, and a collector’s taste is notable for what he leaves out. Sometimes nonwhite characters, mostly quiet Indian actors decked out in the elaborate livery of the help, have appeared in Anderson’s other films. But in the safe insulated palette of Moonrise Kingdom, there is no hint of the Other. The characters are all mid-century white, the scrubbed white of Life magazine ads.
The film is set in 1965 on the fictional island of New Penzance (based on New England), where two twelve-year-olds fall in love and run away together. The boy character, Sam, is an orphan in the whimsical children’s book sense— odd, scrappy, full of mischief—who convinces his marmoreal love interest, Suzy, to escape to a far-off inlet called Moonrise Kingdom. In this paradisiacal inlet, they “play” at being self-sufficient adults: they pitch camp, fish for their own meals, and practice kissing. Suzy’s and Sam’s parents and guardians look for them, and once they’re caught, they run away again because Social Services want to send Sam away to “Juvenile Refuge.” Meanwhile, an incoming hurricane endangers the lives of the two runaways but they are found again in the nick of time. The film ends happily: Suzy and Sam stay together. And adopted by a local policeman, Sam becomes a junior cop just like his kind and rugged guardian.
Nineteen sixty-five was a violent, landmark year for the civil rights movement. Black protesters attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery twice, only to be viciously beaten back by Alabaman police before succeeding the third time. Lyndon Johnson finally passed the Voting Rights Act that prohibited discriminatory practices in voting. Malcolm X was assassinated as he was giving a speech at a rally in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom. And in August, Watts erupted into a mass riot, after years of its citizens being frustrated by joblessness, housing discrimination, and police brutality.
Race was the topmost concern of most Americans that year, the majority of whom felt threatened by African Americans demanding basic civil rights. The
artist Suze Rotolo said, “Pure unadulterated white racism…was splattered all over the media as the violence against the civil rights workers escalated. White people were looking at themselves and what their history has wrought, like a domestic animal having its face shoved into its own urine.”
In 1965, Johnson also approved the Hart-Celler Act, which lifted the racist immigration ban that prevented immigrants coming from Asia, Latin America, and Africa. America’s disgraceful history of barring immigrants based on nationality began with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which expanded to the Immigration Act of 1917 that banned everyone from Asia and the Pacific Islands.
Finally, in 1924, using the ugly science of eugenics as their defense, the U.S. government expanded the restriction to every country except for a slim quota of Western and Northern Europeans. All others immigrants were restricted since they were from inferior stock that would “corrupt” the American populace. Johnson downplayed the seismic importance of the Hart-Celler legislation by saying, “The bill we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill.” He had no idea that the law would irrevocably change the face of America. Since 1965, 90 percent of American immigrants have hailed from outside Europe. By 2050, the Pew Research Center predicts, white Americans will become the minority.
Despite the violent turbulence of that year, Anderson, who was born in 1969, imbues his film with a manufactured, blinkered, pastiched nostalgia that the theorist Lauren Berlant defines as “a small-town one that holds close and high a life that never existed, one that provides a screen memory to cover earlier predations of inequality.” It’s revealing that Anderson dates his film to the last year when whites made up 85 percent of this nation. It’s as if the Neverland of New Penzance is the last imperiled island before the incoming storm of minorities floods in.
On its own, Moonrise Kingdom is a relatively harmless film. But for those of us who have been currently shocked by the “unadulterated white racism… splattered all over the media,” we might ask ourselves what has helped fuel our countries wistfully manufactured “screen memory.” Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom is just one of countless contemporary films, works of literature, pieces of music, and lifestyle choices where wishing for innocent times means fetishizing an era when the nation was violently hostile to anyone different. Hollywood, an industry that shapes not only our national but global memories, has been the most reactionary cultural perpetrator of white nostalgia, stuck in a time loop and refusing to acknowledge that America’s racial demographic has radically changed since 1965. Movies are cast as if the country were still “protected” by a
white supremacist law that guarantees that the only Americans seen are carefully curated European descendants.
Black children were historically “defined out of childhood,” writes the scholar Robin Bernstein in her book Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights. She uses the example of Little Eva, from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as the icon of white innocence. With her halo of golden locks and blue eyes, she is virtuous in Uncle Tom’s eyes, whereas Topsy, the enslaved girl, is wicked, perverse, and motherless. It’s not until Eva hugs her and declares her love for Topsy that Topsy is reborn as an innocent child.
If Little Eva is the idealized child, Topsy is the ultimate “pickaninny,” defined by her “juvenile status, dark skin, and, crucially, the state of being comically impervious to pain.” Stowe wanted to prove that Topsy can feel but it takes Little Eva’s touch to convert her into a child. More often, the white child was contrasted with the enslaved girl to emphasize that “only white children were children.” The “pickaninny” is non-innocent, both feral and insentient, and doesn’t need protection nor maternal care, which slave owners used as justification to tear them from their mothers’ arms to be sold as chattel. This perception still persists today. White boys will always be boys but black boys are ten times more likely to be tried as adults and sentenced to life without parole.
Innocence is, as Bernstein writes, not just an “absence of knowledge” but “an active state of repelling knowledge,” embroiled in the statement, “Well, I don’t see race” where I eclipses the seeing. Innocence is both a privilege and a cognitive handicap, a sheltered unknowingness that, once protracted into adulthood, hardens into entitlement. Innocence is not just sexual deflection but a deflection of one’s position in the socioeconomic hierarchy, based on the confidence that one is “unmarked” and “free to be you and me.” The ironic result of this innocence, writes the scholar Charles Mills, is that whites are “unable to understand the world that they themselves have made.” Children are then disqualified from innocence when they are persistently reminded of, and even criminalized for, their place in the racial pecking order. As Richard Pryor jokes:
“I was a kid until I was eight. Then I became a Negro.”
The flip side of innocence is shame. When Adam and Eve lost their innocence, “their eyes were open, and they suddenly felt shame at their nakedness.” Shame is that sharp, prickling awareness that I am exposed like the inflamed ass of a baboon. It’s a neurotic, self-inflicting wound. Even if the aggressor who caused me shame is no longer in my life, I imagine he is, and I shrink from my shadow that I mistake for him. Shame is a Pavlovian response, its agitated receptor going off for no other reason than I just stepped outside my house. It’s not about losing face. Shame squats over my face and sits.
Shame is often associated with Asianness and the Confucian system of honor alongside its incomprehensible rites of shame, but that is not the shame I’m talking about. My shame is not cultural but political. It is being painfully aware of the power dynamic that pulls at the levers of social interactions and the cringing indignity of where I am in that order either as the afflicted—or as the afflicter. I am a dog cone of shame. I am a urinal cake of shame. This feeling eats away at my identity until my body is hollowed out and I am nothing but pure incinerating shame.
I recall my mother rooting through the dryer and extracting a large red T-shirt with a silhouette of a white bunny. In retrospect, I have no idea how we acquired that shirt. I assume it was given as a gift to my father. Anyway, my immigrant mother didn’t know what the logo meant. The next day, she dressed me in that Playboy shirt, and sent me off, at the age of seven, to school. When I was waiting in line after recess to return to our class, a fourth grader pointed to the front of my shirt and asked me if I knew what “that means.” When I said no and I saw her smirk and run to her friends, I knew yet again that something was wrong but I didn’t know what was wrong. Blood rushed to my face. It is this shirt, but why?
The schoolyard was bordered by a chain-link fence and paved in gray tarmac. Like a de Chirico painting, it was an austere open space, with no trees, interrupted only by the stark sundialed shadows cast by the handball board and tetherball poles, which I avoided because the taller kids whipped the untouchable balls high into the air. I didn’t know why the bunny was bad. No one would tell
me why it was bad. And so the bunny blurred into the encrypted aura of a hex. My temperature rose, my body radiating heat to flush the contaminant, the contaminant that was me, out.
I had that same simmering somatic reaction when I was learning English. Because I didn’t learn the language until I started school, I associated English with everything hard: the chalkboard with diagrammed sentences, the syllables in my mouth like hard slippery marbles. English was not an expression of me but a language that was out to get me, threaded with invisible trip wires that could expose me at the slightest misstep. My first-grade teacher read a book to her attentive class, then turned to me and smiled, and said something in her garbled tongue, which I took to mean “go outside.” I stood up and walked out of the classroom. Suddenly, my teacher was outside too, her face flushed as she scolded me and yanked me back inside.
Shame gives me the ability to split myself into the first and third person. To recognize myself, as Sartre writes, “as the Other sees me.” I now see the humor in my unintended disobedience. The teacher reads to a group of rapt six-year-olds who sit cross-legged in a circle, and then, without warning, the quiet little Asian girl calmly gets up in the middle of her story and walks out of her classroom. The next year, the quiet little Asian girl shows up to school wearing a pornographic T- shirt.
One characteristic of racism is that children are treated like adults and adults are treated like children. Watching a parent being debased like a child is the deepest shame. I cannot count the number of times I have seen my parents condescended to or mocked by white adults. This was so customary that when my mother had any encounter with a white adult, I was always hypervigilant, ready to mediate or pull her away. To grow up Asian in America is to witness the humiliation of authority figures like your parents and to learn not to depend on them: they cannot protect you.
The indignity of being Asian in this country has been underreported. We have been cowed by the lie that we have it good. We keep our heads down and work hard, believing that our diligence will reward us with our dignity, but our diligence will only make us disappear. By not speaking up, we perpetuate the myth that our shame is caused by our repressive culture and the country we fled, whereas America has given us nothing but opportunity. The lie that Asians have it
good is so insidious that even now as I write, I’m shadowed by doubt that I didn’t have it bad compared to others. But racial trauma is not a competitive sport. The problem is not that my childhood was exceptionally traumatic but that it was in fact rather typical.
Most white Americans can only understand racial trauma as a spectacle. Right after Trump’s election, the media reported on the uptick in hate crimes, tending to focus on the obvious heretical displays of hate: the white high school students parading down the hallways wearing Confederate flag capes and the graffitied swastikas. What’s harder to report is not the incident itself but the stress of its anticipation. The white reign of terror can be invisible and cumulative, chipping away at one’s worth until there’s nothing left but self-loathing.
The poet Bhanu Kapil wrote the following: “If I have to think about what it looks like when the Far Right rises, all I have to do is close my eyes. And remember my childhood.” Friends have echoed the same sentiment: Trump’s presidency has triggered a flashback to childhood. Children are cruel. They will parrot whatever racist shit their parents tell them in private in the bluntest way imaginable. Racism is “out in the open” among kids in the way racism is now “out in the open” under Trump’s administration. But this trigger does not necessarily mean recalling a specific racist incident but a flashback to a feeling: a thrum of fear and shame, a tight animal alertness. Childhood is a state of mind, whether it’s a nostalgic return to innocence or a sudden flashback to unease and dread. If the innocence of childhood is being protected and comforted, the precarity of childhood is when one feels the least protected and comfortable.
My grandmother on my mother’s side moved from Seoul and lived with us when my mother needed help caring for my sister and me. She was a refugee during the Korean War who fled with her children from North Korea to reunite with my grandfather, who was already south. My grandmother carried my mother, who was two, on her back during the dangerous journey along the coast when the tide was low. My mother was almost left behind. My grandmother, before she changed her mind, planned to leave my mother with her aunt and then return later to retrieve her. She had no idea that the border between the North and South would be sealed forever; that she would never hear from her parents and siblings in North Korea again; that just like that, her world would vanish.
My grandmother remained a steadfast, tough, and gregarious woman. When
my grandfather was alive, they were one of the few families in Incheon who owned a house with indoor plumbing. After the war, she ran her home like a soup kitchen, inviting everyone for dinner—the homeless, orphans, widows and widowers—anyone who needed food.
She was lonely living with us in our new white suburban neighborhood. She went on long strolls, occasionally bringing back a coffee urn or a broken lamp she found in someone’s garbage can. During those years, my mother vacuumed every day, sometimes even three times a day, as if she could see the dead skin cells of her family shingle every surface. When my mother went into one of her cleaning frenzies, I kept my grandmother company on her walks.
I was eight when I joined my grandmother for a stroll. She had recently moved in with us. The California sidewalk was pristine and empty. Our neighborhood was silent except for the snicking sprinklers that watered the lawns on our street. My grandmother had just broken off a branch of lemons from someone else’s front yard to take back to our house when we came across a group of white kids who were hanging out on a cul-de-sac. My grandmother, to my alarm, decided to say hello. She waded into that crowd of kids and began shaking their hands because that is what people do in America. The kids were surprised but then began shaking her hand one by one. I could tell they were pumping her hand a little too vigorously. “Hello,” she said. “Herro,” they shot back. One of them mimed nonsensical sign language at her face. Then a tall lean girl with limp brown hair snuck up behind her and kicked my grandmother’s butt as hard as she could. My grandmother fell to the ground. All the kids laughed.
My grandmother told my father, who then made a point to look out for that girl when we were all in the car together. Once, we stopped at a stop sign and we saw her. That’s her, we told him. My father unrolled his window and began yelling at her. I’ve never seen him so enraged at another white person, let alone a kid. He demanded she apologize but she refused. She denied ever seeing us.
“How would you like it if I kicked you!” my father shouted. “How would you like that?” He unbuckled his seatbelt and scrambled out of the car. The girl loped easily up the hill and disappeared. He staggered after her a few steps and then stopped when he realized the futility of his efforts. The car was in the middle of the road. The engine was still running and the jaw of the driver’s car door was hinged wide open. I gaped at my father. I was scared of him but also I was scared
for him. I saw my father’s attempt to defend his family in the way our neighbors might see it—an acting out, an overreaction—and I was deeply afraid he would be punished for his fury.
Another time, my younger sister was nine and I was thirteen when we were leaving the mall. A white couple opened the glass doors to enter as we were leaving. I assumed the man was opening the door for us, so we scurried out as he reluctantly held the door wide. Before the door shut behind him, he bellowed, “I don’t open doors for chinks!”
My sister burst into tears. She couldn’t understand why he was so mean. “That’s never happened to me before,” she cried.
I wanted to run back into the mall and kill him. I had failed to protect my younger sister and I was helpless in my murderous rage against a grown man so hateful he was incapable of recognizing us as kids.
I only bring up the latter incident to compare it to an experience I had later in life. I was in my early twenties, living in Brooklyn. It was one of those unbearably hot July days that brought out the asshole in all New Yorkers. My friend, her boyfriend, and I walked into the Second Avenue subway station. As I walked down the stairs to the subway platform, a man passed us, and while looking at me, he singsonged, “Ching chong ding dong.” He was a neckless white guy wearing a baseball cap. He looked like a typical Staten Island jock. But then I noticed he was with his black wife and his biracial toddler.
My friends, who were white, didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable, so I dismissed it. We boarded the F train and I realized he was in the same car as us. As the train trundled along stop after stop, I became increasingly enraged staring at him. How many times have I let situations like this go? I thought.
“I’m going to say something to him,” I told my friends, and they encouraged me to confront him. I wended my way past everyone in the crowded car until I stood over him. I quietly told him off. I not only called him a racist but I also hissed that he was setting a horrible example for his baby. When I returned to my friends, my head throbbing, I looked back and saw that he had stood up and was
walking toward us. As he approached us, he pointed to my roommate’s boyfriend and threatened, “He’s lucky that he’s not your boyfriend, because if he was your boyfriend, I’d beat the shit out of him.” Then he walked back and sat down. I was stunned and relieved that it didn’t end in violence or more racial slurs. My roommate’s boyfriend kept saying, “I wish I said something.” Then it was our stop. As we were getting off, the guy shouted at me across the crowded car, “Fucking chink!”
“White trash motherfucker!” I yelled back. When we were on the platform, my friend, who had failed to say much
during the train ride, burst into tears. “That’s never happened to me before,” she wailed. And just like that, I was shoved aside. I was about to comfort her and then I
stopped myself from the absurdity of that impulse. All of my anger and hurt transferred to her, and even now, as I’m writing this, I’m more upset with her than that guy. We walked silently back to our apartment while she cried.
Two thousand and sixteen was the year of white tears. Memes circulated around the Internet of a black, brown, or Asian woman taking a long leisurely sip from a white mug embossed with the words “White Tears.” Implied in the meme is that people of color are utterly indifferent to white tears. Not only that, they feel a certain delicious Schadenfreude in response to white tears. Of course, “white tears” does not refer to all pain but to the particular emotional fragility a white person experiences when they find racial stress so intolerable they become hypersensitive and defensive, focusing the stress back to their own bruised ego.
In 2011, academics Samuel R. Sommers and Michael I. Norton conducted a survey in which they found that whenever whites reported a decrease in perceived antiblack bias, they reported an increase in antiwhite bias. It was as if they thought racism was a zero-sum game, encapsulated in the paraphrased comment by former attorney general Jeff Sessions: Less against you means more against me. At the time of the study, white Americans actually thought that antiwhite bias was a bigger societal problem than antiblack bias. They believed this despite the fact that all but one of our presidents have been white, 90 percent of our Congress has been historically white, and the average net worth of whites is ten to thirteen times greater than the net worth of nonwhites. In fact, the income gap
between races is only becoming greater. Thirty years ago a median black family had $6,800 in assets but now they have just $1,700, whereas a white median family now has $116,800, up from $102,000 over the same period. The hoarding of resources has been so disproportionate, writes scholar Linda Martín Alcoff, that the racial project of whiteness is, in effect, an oligarchy.
And yet their false sense of persecution has only worsened, as in the case of Abigail Fisher (known as “Becky with the Bad Grades”), who in 2016 took her lawsuit to the Supreme Court, claiming that she was denied admission to University of Texas–Austin because of her race, when in fact it was because of her scores. Their delusion is also tacit in the commonly heard defensive retort to Black Lives Matter that “all lives matter.” Rather than being inclusive, “all” is a walled-off pronoun, a defensive measure to “not make it about race” so that the invisible hegemony of whiteness can continue unchallenged.
In 2018, I saw an installation by the artist Carmen Winant, who covered two walls at the Museum of Modern Art with two thousand photographs of women in the process of giving birth. She taped up pictures, clipped from books and magazines that spanned three decades, of women squatting, or on all fours, or in a birthing pool, or with legs splayed out in stirrups—all of them in the abject throes of labor. Some photos feature newborns crowning, the dark rinds of their heads splitting open their mothers’ ursine vaginas. One picture offers the back of a mother on all fours, with her gown hitched up to her armpits, while her newborn’s squinched face pokes out near her anus. Emotions are exposed in their raw glory: joy, anguish, adoration, and relief.
The photographs are almost all of white women. When I look at the photos individually, I’m moved by the mothers’ exhaustion and joy, but when I step back, I can’t unsee the wall of whiteness. Winant taped up every photo of realistic childbirth she could find in used bookstores, an exhaustive process that only insists on the sameness of these images. Reviewers described the installation as “universal” and “mind blowing.” And yet, rather than the visceral “radical exposure” of birth, all I see is its whiteness. In Winant’s obsessive efforts to evoke the “all,” I feel walled off.
I can argue that I’m able to see whiteness as opposed to these white reviewers who are unable to perceive whiteness as a racial category. But lately, I’ve been questioning if my habit of noticing white spaces impairs me from enjoying
anything else. I’ve become a scold, constantly pointing out what is, or should be, obvious. In José Saramago’s novel Blindness, when the characters go blind, their vision doesn’t go dark but turns white as if they “plunged with open eyes into the milky sea.” I see whiteness everywhere I go. I sense its machinations. I see that even my mind is stained by whiteness, as if it’s been dyed with the radiopaque ink used for X-rays. This stain makes me incessantly analogize my life to other lives. I no longer think my life comes up short. But even in opposition, I still see my life in relation to whiteness.
Recently, I read a tweet by the poet Natalie Diaz, who asked, Why must writers of color always have to talk about whiteness? Why center it in our work when it’s centered everywhere else? On the train ride back home from the museum, I thought of my grandmother who lost three children before they reached eighteen. If I tell her story, will it just be denatured into a sad story, a story to tape up on that wall to accent its whiteness?
I have to address whiteness because Asian Americans have yet to truly reckon with where we stand in the capitalist white supremacist hierarchy of this country. We are so far from reckoning with it that some Asians think that race has no bearing on their lives, that it doesn’t “come up,” which is as misguided as white people saying the same thing about themselves, not only because of discrimination we have faced but because of the entitlements we’ve been granted due to our racial identity. These Asians are my cousins; my ex-boyfriend; these Asians are myself, cocooned in Brooklyn, caught unawares on a nice warm day, thinking I don’t have to be affected by race; I only choose to think about it. I could live only for myself, for my immediate family, following the expectations of my parents, whose survivor instincts align with this country’s neoliberal ethos, which is to get ahead at the expense of anyone else while burying the shame that binds us. To varying degrees, all Asians who have grown up in the United States know intimately the shame I have described; have felt its oily flame.
Two thousand and sixteen was the year when whiteness became visible due to several factors: the looming demographic shift in which white Americans will soon be a minority; the shrinkage of fixed employment that has caused some whites to feel disempowered and lash out at immigrants; and the media attention to black and brown activists who since Ferguson have protested racial inequities in sectors ranging from the judicial system to education to culture. White
Americans, if they hadn’t before, now felt marked for their skin color, and their reaction for being exposed as such was to feel—shame.
Shame is an inward, intolerable feeling but it can lead to productive outcomes because of the self-scrutiny shame requires. This has been the case for white progressives who have been evaluating how privilege governs their life. Years ago, whenever a conversation about race came up, my white students were awkwardly silent. But now, many of them are eager to listen and process the complexities of race relations and their roles in it, which gives me hope. Alcoff calls this self-examination “white double-consciousness,” which involves seeing “themselves through both the dominant and the nondominant lens, and recognizing the latter as a critical corrective truth.”
But while shame can lead to productive self-scrutiny, it can also lead to contempt. In Affect Imagery Consciousness, the psychoanalyst Silvan Tomkins clarifies the distinction between contempt and shame in a society:
Contempt will be used sparingly in a democratic society lest it undermine solidarity, whereas it will be used frequently and with approbation in a hierarchically organized society in order to maintain distance between individuals, classes, and nations. In a democratic society, contempt will often be replaced by empathic shame, in which the critic hangs his head in shame at what the other has done; or by distress, in which the critic expresses his suffering at what the other has done; or by anger, in which the critic seeks redress for the wrongs committed by the other.
It’s also human nature to repel shame by penalizing and refusing continued engagement with the source of their shame. Most white Americans live in segregated environments, which, as Alcoff writes, “protects and insulates them from race-based stress.” As a result, any proximity to minorities—seeing Latinx families move into their town, watching news clips of black protesters chanting “I can’t breathe” in Grand Central Station—sparks intolerable discomfort. Suddenly Americans feel self-conscious of their white identity and this self-consciousness misleads them into thinking their identity is under threat. In feeling wrong, they feel wronged. In being asked to be made aware of racial oppression, they feel oppressed. While we laugh at white tears, white tears can turn dangerous. White tears, as Damon Young explains in The Root, are why defeated Southerners refused to accept the freedom of black slaves and formed the Ku Klux Klan. And
white tears are why 63 percent of white men and 53 percent of white women elected a malignant man-child as their leader. For to be aware of history, they would be forced to be held accountable, and rather than face that shame, they’d rather, by any means necessary, maintain their innocence.
On February 1, 2017, a five-year-old Iranian child was handcuffed and held at Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., for five hours because he was “identified as a possible threat” despite his minor status. This happened as a direct result of Trump’s executive order banning travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the nation. Never mind that the boy was an American citizen from Maryland. The press secretary said, “To assume that just because of someone’s age and gender that they don’t pose a threat would be misguided and wrong.” The outrage against the administration was still fresh and bright that day. Thousands of New Yorkers rushed to JFK Airport to protest the ban. When the boy was finally reunited with his mother, a crowd of protesters cheered as they embraced. Watching the news clip, I took solace in their reunion. But how will that day shape him as he grows?
Whether our families come from Guatemala, Afghanistan, or South Korea, the immigrants since 1965 have shared histories that extend beyond this nation, to our countries of origin, where our lineage has been decimated by Western imperialism, war, and dictatorships orchestrated or supported by the United States. In our efforts to belong in America, we act grateful, as if we’ve been given a second chance at life. But our shared root is not the opportunity this nation has given us but how the capitalist accumulation of white supremacy has enriched itself off the blood of our countries. We cannot forget this.
As a writer, I am determined to help overturn the solipsism of white innocence so that our national consciousness will closer resemble the minds of children like that Iranian American boy. His is an unprotected consciousness that already knows, even before literacy, the violence this nation is capable of, and it is this knowingness that must eclipse the white imaginary, as his consciousness, haunted by history, will one day hold the majority.
The background and significance of the problem and a clear statement of the research purpose is provided. The search history is mentioned.
The background and significance of the problem and a clear statement of the research purpose is provided. The search history is mentioned.
Content is well-organized with headings for each slide and bulleted lists to group related material as needed. Use of font, color, graphics, effects, etc. to enhance readability and presentation content is excellent. Length requirements of 10 slides/pages or less is met.
More depth/detail for the background and significance is needed, or the research detail is not clear. No search history information is provided.
Review of relevant theoretical literature is evident, but there is little integration of studies into concepts related to problem. Review is partially focused and organized. Supporting and opposing research are included. Summary of information presented is included. Conclusion may not contain a biblical integration.
Content is somewhat organized, but no structure is apparent. The use of font, color, graphics, effects, etc. is occasionally detracting to the presentation content. Length requirements may not be met.
The background and/or significance are missing. No search history information is provided.
Review of relevant theoretical literature is evident, but there is no integration of studies into concepts related to problem. Review is partially focused and organized. Supporting and opposing research are not included in the summary of information presented. Conclusion does not contain a biblical integration.
There is no clear or logical organizational structure. No logical sequence is apparent. The use of font, color, graphics, effects etc. is often detracting to the presentation content. Length requirements may not be met
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