How can white Americans be free?

The default belief that the white experience is a neutral and objective one hurts both white and American culture

Published April 25, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)


"No people come into possession of a culture without having paid a heavy price for it." -- James Baldwin

Measure, measure, measure.
We learn to measure first.
We spend our days measuring. And when we count we start at one.

Every number after is in relation to one.
Two is one after one.
Three is two after one. And so on.
Every child knows that one is the beginning from which all other numbers arise.

And every child knows that one is Whiteness.

The beginning.

In the beginning there was Whiteness. This is the glittering starting point. This is The Default. This is what we measure everything else against.

It’s clear that we as Black and Brown Americans, are still recovering from the racist indoctrinations of the past 500 years. Though laughable it sounds, white Americans, too, have suffered from this crime. As our country began and brown races were systematically denied the right to be human and so internalized the role of the savage, white consciousness bullied its way into objectivity. The white mind became the unbiased mind that objectively observed all the rest. This is called The Default: The belief that the white experience is a neutral and objective experience and white consciousness is the standard consciousness unless otherwise specified. White culture, and American culture as a whole, suffers from the tragedy of whiteness as the default setting.

Being The Default keeps white Americans from being liberated because it denies them a specific identity by absorbing them into neutral blankness. This creates a lonely detachment from the rest of the world. Being The Default is the largest privilege granted to white Americans, yet it is so deeply entrenched it is the most invisible (we cannot see the edges of the atmosphere, but it exists). Whites benefit from being The Default by having inherent legitimacy in a way that’s denied to people of color. Their experience of life is “normal.” Whites are free from the constant awareness (and subsequent constant paranoia) of existing in another person’s world. Because The Default has so successfully dominated our subconscious, because our egos have been shaped by it from the moment of birth, we perpetuate it in micro ways while fighting inequality with more obvious actions. The silent poison continues to poison. Whiteness as The Default keeps brown people in subjugation by convincing them that every part of their being, physical, spiritual and emotional, exists within a white narrative. When you are made to exist within something you are forced to be smaller than that which contains you. This is precisely the basis of racist thought. Brown existence, brown consciousness is smaller.

How the Default Traps People of Color

Here is an example of how The Default works against people of color. In an interview with Vice magazine, Asian-American writer Tao Lin explains why he doesn’t discuss race in his work:

INTERVIEWER: I also remember you saying something along the lines of “my favorite writers are usually white and rich or middle class.”

LIN: Those people aren’t as affected as much by poverty, having to fight in a war, having to earn money to survive, racism, and things like that. Things that, if solved, will leave you with these other problems: knowing you’re going to die, knowing you're required to make decisions in an arbitrary universe, knowing that you can only occupy one space at one time (so you can never fully be connected with another person). Which are the things that I like to read about. If someone’s in a war, or needing to work two jobs to survive, they’ll probably be focused on writing about that. And I guess when you’re just focused on making enough money to survive, you aren’t worried about “how do I know what to do if the universe is meaningless.”

INTERVIEWER: The jail scene in "Shoplifting From American Apparel" is one of the only moments in your work where the ethnicity of characters is prominently noted. Would you say your characters live in a post-racial world?

LIN: No. I think that’s just a personal preference, because I don’t want to write about racism. Or those other things mentioned earlier. If I put in a character's race, some readers would assume, like, “Oh his problems are because he’s being discriminated against.” Or, “He doesn’t know his racial/cultural identity, he's confused about his racial/ cultural identity, which is why he is sad or confused.” To me, their problems are the same as any person’s who is not in a war or working two jobs to survive.

To Lin, we (brown people) are lesser beings -- not inherently so, of course -- but because the burden of our struggle has exhausted its brave and noble warriors so fully, it prevents them from considering existential issues and experiencing the real, larger life that white people are living. But this is an excuse meant to justify Lin’s own desire for artistic and philosophical universality, which both feel threatened by the specificity of his race. Lin wants to reach defaultness for himself while making sure we continue to think of other brown people as outside of objective consciousness and continue to see whites as the default authors of philosophical thought. He is afraid of the power of The Default and so reinforces it lest it undermine the power of his own work.

Sadly, Lin has failed to see that he is an Asian-American man and somehow -- somehow -- his mind has managed to ponder “big ideas.” If Lin is an Asian-American man and Lin manages to ask, "How do I know if the universe is meaningless?" his own existence disproves his theory. And his theory proves the existence of The Default.

Sometimes, when I’m developing screenplays, I subconsciously give them a white male lead -- that’s my inner Lin, and it shows how deep The Default has invaded my mind. Even brown people have made their interior internal voice white in so many ways. Our yearning for legitimacy is so deep, we erase ourselves from the inside.

Lin’s reasoning demonstrates the empathetic liberal’s way of reinforcing The Default, but he is only continuing the cycle that the interviewer began. We expect artists of color to address race or we’ll ask why they don’t. White artists are never asked why they aren’t addressing their experience of race in their work. We don’t have the same expectations of white artists because, of course, they are raceless. We assume that if race is not specified and a specific identity is not discussed, then the identity is white.

In some places, the white default is blindingly obvious, like newspapers. Even in California, where white people are not a majority of the population, the L.A. Times and the San Francisco Chronicle both continue to specify race almost exclusively when an individual is non-white. No race specified? Must be a regular person! A white person.

This is the same thinking that white conservatives use when they feel like a "minority"group is just looking out for its own interests. Or when analysts say things like, “Without blacks and Hispanics, the majority of Americans voted for Romney.” The assumption is that white voters, white politicians, white pundits are more real and are the only ones who can present objective solutions and analyses, since they are not burdened by self-interest. Another example: My black father, who has a Ph.D. in European history, was frequently asked if he was able to teach European history “objectively.”

To correct this tragic flaw in thinking, we must begin to see the white experience as specific.

Girls and Sympathy for Whiteness

Harmony Korine’s recent film "Spring Breakers" dramatizes clearly the schism in white consciousness that occurs as a result of the spiritual emptiness of being blank. In order to have sympathy for this white spiritual crisis, we must first understand The Default and allow ourselves to be kind, because even Voldemort is just Tom Riddle.

The film follows four white college girls -- Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), Cotty (Rachel Corine) and Faith (Selena Gomez) -- on spring break. Having robbed a restaurant and its patrons in order to fund their vacation, the girls party hard before being arrested for cocaine possession. White rapper Alien (James Franco) bails them out, and the girls loyally join his beef with drug rival (and childhood best friend) Archie (Gucci Mane), who happens to be black.

In the film’s opening images of topless, grinding, drunk college students, White America’s desire to escape history, perhaps its need to forget history in order to feel free, has never been so clear. Brit and Candy, sitting through a PowerPoint presentation on Reconstruction and civil rights, feel they have no positive identity. I ask you not to laugh. Though history has in many ways cherished white women over all others, and despite the enormous privilege of being college educated, there is genuine and true pain here.

White liberal identity is all about NOT being something (not racist, not homophobic, not sexist), and so white liberals inevitably become desperate to be something. At some level, whites understand everything that they and their ancestors were a part of -- slavery, Jim Crow, racism, Native-American genocide, Christian persecution, anti-gay, anti-women’s rights, anti-immigrant, capitalist, Vietnam, etc., etc., etc. A conscious white liberal is fighting hard to NOT be what their history implies. But the girls in "Spring Breakers" want to be able to be active not passive.

The only escape the girls can see is to seal themselves off from the rest of the world order. On spring break you are not reminded of history or a guilty identity. They are white people unfettered by history. The absence of time makes for a very spiritual place indeed, and Faith, whose spirituality is the clearest as a Christian, says she wants to pause time and calls it “the most spiritual place,” a place where everyone is the same. Faith proclaims her love of this uniformity again and again. Everyone is “like us,” she says (young, beautiful and white). They are all the same. And that means no one exists to remind them of their external identity.

Until Alien brings them to a pool hall full of black men.

And then there was history.
And then there was time.
And then there was a feeling of guilt.

And surrounded by black bodies, Faith’s frail spirituality disintegrates, because a guilty external identity is anti-transcendent and her heaven is predicated on the absence of anyone different. Brown people impede white transcendence with our obsession with something as terrestrial as race. Or so goes a line of thought that can only exist if you are The Objective Default.

The girls love Alien because he’s an unapologetic white man. His whiteness made all the more aggressive in his unabashed adoption of blackness. Alien is actively stealing from black people -- he’s trying to be something. He’s not trying to erase himself in the face of black culture with the deference liberal whites are expected to have. He does not emasculate himself. For Brit and Candy this is the ultimate assertion of The Default. Strong Whiteness. Strong Maleness. And they want it. Alien longs for a friendship with his old best friend and now drug rival Archie, but an adult Archie with an adult’s understanding of a racist world is unable to give Alien the generosity he longs for when it interferes with his business. He tells Alien to go back to the crimes that white boys are supposed to do, like stealing from spring break kids.

It’s clear that Alien is frustrated that his assertion of power cannot be seen apart from the history white oppression. He wants to be accepted into black culture (unfortunately, only shown in "Spring Breakers" as drug culture). But while Alien sees himself as a criminal stealing turf from another criminal, Archie sees it as a continuation of white thievery and greed. Archie feels himself being erased, and he is right. White culture steals. Brit, Candy and Cotty steal. Alien steals. Elvis steals. The Rolling Stones steal. White culture steals because it has no soul of its own. White people are fleeing Whiteness because they do not have a way to exist apart from their history of oppression. But in fleeing, they continue that history, continuing to be blind to the largest remaining system that reinforces inequality. One which they continue to benefit from. The Default. The idea that white people are ‘regular’ and everyone else is something different. Admiring that “something different” as better is still reinforcing the fact that it is adjacent to the real thing.

The external benefits of whiteness, so emphasized by modern Western culture, mask the pain of being a white default. The thinking white man is hyper-aware of his role in a system of oppression. Awareness of his privilege erases his right to existential dissatisfaction or depression (and yet he still feels it). He is unable to embrace his white identity without feeling like a racist, and he is left without a sense of heritage or ethnicity. If he does not achieve the greatness that is promised to all white people (either by being poor, or unsuccessful) he feels invisible, like a failure without any excuse. He is without a home. Not because foreigners have taken it, but because white people have taken it from themselves.

Unexpectedly, writer/director Lena Dunham came to mind many times during "Spring Breakers," and I thought of the frustration she must feel regarding the criticism over the lack of diversity on her HBO show "Girls." In many ways, Lena is the fifth "Spring Breakers" girl. Lena and the "Spring Breakers" girls are aggressively asserting their default white experience by pretending that it’s not an experience of whiteness. They seek an escape from an apologetic existence.

Dunham’s work is hurtful in part because its awareness of gender inequality makes all the more glaring its naiveté about race. As Anna Holmes wrote: “It’s all the more surprising because Dunham, a self-described feminist, seems unaware that the progressive gender politics she embraces have a long and frustrating history of relegating race to the sidelines.”

The ways in which Dunham destroys The Male Default and contributes to my visibility as a woman are ultimately smaller than the ways in which she contributes to The White Default, and the secondariness of my experience as Black and Malaysian. The sexism I experience is entirely informed by my race.

In response to criticism, Dunham stated in an NPR interview:

I wrote the first season primarily by myself, and I co-wrote a few episodes. But I am a half-Jew, half-WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs. Something I wanted to avoid was tokenism in casting. If I had one of the four Girls, if, for example, she was African-American, I feel like — not that the experience of an African-American girl and a white girl are drastically different, but there has to be specificity to that experience [that] I wasn't able to speak to. I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me. And only later did I realize that it was four white Girls. As much as I can say it was an accident, it was only later as the criticism came out, I thought, "I hear this and I want to respond to it." And this is a hard issue to speak to because all I want to do is sound sensitive and not say anything that will horrify anyone or make them feel more isolated, but I did write something that was super-specific to my experience, and I always want to avoid rendering an experience I can't speak to accurately.

This response was seen as very honest, and in a way it is. Dunham knows that as an artist she needs to stay true to her experience, and she knows she can’t create art from a position of defensiveness and guilt. She’s smart enough to know that writing a black character that she doesn’t understand is probably not any better than having no black characters at all. So even after all the criticism of her show’s lack of non-white characters, she produced a second season that was almost as white.

Richard Brody at the New Yorker wrote about Dunham, “She’s not investigating her class or group, nor is she revealing herself with a sense of self-justification or apology. Rather, she is living with imagination and imagining as she lives.”

But like Lin, Dunham is avoiding addressing the specificity of her own racial experience as a white person. She doesn’t realize she’s avoiding it, and critics don’t realize it either because we have all agreed that being white is not a racial experience. This is exactly what’s gone wrong.

When Dunham falls back on expressing just her personal experience, she is denying that her personal experience is an experience of whiteness. She has been duped into believing that her whiteness is background, that it is just "regular," that it’s default. Only The Default could exist apart from any system of oppression. Only The Default is outside, with an objective view of race. And if you see yourself as The Default, a No. 1, you certainly are contributing to systems of inequality. And in supporting a system where the same stories are told from the same points of view you continue to support The Default and you benefit from it.

Dunham is correct that as an artist she has to write what she knows. But if what she knows is that white existence is a neutral, non-racial experience, she needs to learn something different. “What we achieve inwardly will change our outer reality,” wrote Plutarch.

Trapped White Conservatives, Trapped White Liberals

Most whites, like Alien, Dunham and the "Spring Breakers," are overconfident about their understanding of race and the subtle ways in which inequality is reinforced. This overconfidence is the result of a genuine eagerness to move forward. But because white people don’t see the magnitude of the white default and the ways that white liberalism and conservatism help create it, they are lost. Liberals feel guilty but helpless. Conservatives feel frustrated and put upon. Both are trapped in The Default and both reinforce The Default, but in very different ways.

White conservatives have made the mistake of almost explicitly wanting to maintain their whiteness as The Default; they believe it’s to their advantage. They have to use some code words, so they say they want to “defend Christmas” or to define America as a “Christian country,” and they hide their white supremacy behind accusatory patriotism and anti-Obama rants.

But the same instinct to put up the Confederate flag, and not just the American flag, is the instinct to have a specific identity. Everyone wants an identity and history. Many conservatives think that making white people the American Default helps them have a definable identity: “American.” But a white America is impossible to fully achieve; America is much too diverse already and irreversibly so. I saw a bumper sticker on an SUV last week that had an American flag with a bald eagle and said “We are losing our country. Does anyone care?” The sticker was right next to two Ireland stickers. You could almost see this white woman flailing to find a specific identity to believe in. She wants both the privilege of her whiteness being The Default (“our country”) and she also yearns for the history and specificity of her whiteness (“Ireland”).

White liberals, on the other hand, are so afraid of claiming any white identity (for terror of feeling white pride or appearing to deny their white privilege) that they also reinforce the idea that whiteness is empty, nothing -- that it’s a default. They act like they have no particular identity. And if you act like you don’t have any particular identity, you are “regular.” But white liberals end up feeling that pain of a lack of identity and they have to look to other cultures to find meaning. This is why white American culture co-opts meaning from everyone else, from African-Americans (Elvis, Alien, Britney Spears) and Native-Americans (spirituality) and Asian-Americans (zen, Martial Arts) and India (Yoga, Meditation).

Owning Whiteness

White people frequently ask me what my ethnicity is. I like to ask them back and they preface their answer with a sheepish expression, “Oh, I’m just regular white” they say, or “Oh, just plain boring white.” They don’t believe they have an ethnicity because The Default has erased European ethnicity to absorb people of European descent (and a few lucky Middle Easterners) into Whiteness.

My best friend of 12 years is from an Italian-American family. When I discussed The Default with her recently, she talked about never feeling comfortable with checking off “white” as a race and wanting to write in “Italian”:

What is being asked for is a statement of your identity, and there is a discord between how I feel about myself ("Italian") and how the world boxes me in ("white"). I don't think I deserve a medal for being Italian, or second generation, or for having inherited issues that I think are not necessarily definitive of all the immigrant experience but certainly are related, but I think my family story is one that has not yet ended, that is still being worked through in my generation, and so to say simply I am white is not only wrong, but it erases the idea that any of that other stuff exists.

How can white people be ethnic without annoying everybody by appearing to deny their white privilege? How can white people be free to suffer without appearing to forget the violent injustices of the country and the enormous burden that the myth of Whiteness places on the black and brown consciousness. How does a white Jewish woman share her genuine pain over her large nose and her curly hair without being punched in the face by a black woman? How do white people fight for freedom for their spiritual selves and legitimacy for their external experience when the world is still so racist and they benefit from their whiteness?

I ask you, again, not to laugh.

In order for white suffering to have a voice, white people must realize the largest and most invisible way in which they benefit from their white privilege, and it's the same thing that’s causing their frustration being The Default. If Person A is actively supporting and benefiting from a system that oppresses Person B, it is very hard for Person B to hear Person A say, “But I’m hurt too!” However, if Person A is actively working to dismantle the system they benefit from but which oppresses Person B, then Person B is finally seen -- and Person A’s pain can be embraced. In order to see a person you must see the truth of their pain. If you deny their pain, you refuse to see them. This is what makes black people invisible. And black invisibility is what makes white pain invisible to black people.

And so we live our lives never seeing each other.

When White Americans see Black and Brown Americans in this way, Brown and Black Americans will accept their pain. It is a cycle that begins with destroying The Default.

The fight against inequality, the fight against The Default, is a fight for white spiritual and emotional freedom, not just the freedom of people of color, women, or gays and lesbians. It is only by seeing white specificity that we can awaken to the fallacy of the idea that humans are separate. Perhaps if whites see their own psychic freedom at risk, a new racial awareness will arise naturally.

Ending The Default

It’s scary to focus on white people in any way and have sympathy for white pain, when everything, everything, is already by, for, and about white people (The Default is why we all laugh when some idiot asks why there isn’t a White History Month). It’s scary because brown people are seen as continuing the problem of racial division implicitly just by existing, or by daring to be dissatisfied with obvious inequality. Or by seeming to deny white people’s joy over progress towards racial equality (Obama) by ungratefully continuing to feel pain and point to pain.

Yet in my more open moments, I feel white suffering and I feel sad and I realize that the obviousness of racism against brown people is a grace for us, a grace because it is so clear and tangible. While that which oppresses whites is harder to see and is not discussed.

I think things are changing. Not in what I see in shows like "Girls," but in what we see in people’s reactions to it. Awareness is growing. And the reactions to "Spring Breakers," as well, and in the question that I think Korine has posed:

How can white people be free?

White America is desperately searching for its soul because it has for so long benefited from a belief that it is apart from the rest of us, blank of experience. I have gone the length of this article without saying it, but now it is the end and I’m no hero: One is the loneliest number.

By Kartina Richardson

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