copyright Robert Jensen 2005
Editor's Note: This essay is excerpted from The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege, City Lights, September 2005.
Houston Chronicle, September 11, 2005, pp. E-1, 5.
Such realities have always been clear to those on
of the hierarchy, of course, and to others willing to face the reality
supremacy predominance. But now all of white
Will we take that opportunity, or turn away out of
we have the courage to face the meaning of what we have seen? The
requires a kind of honesty that is rare in the history of white
The first step is to recognize that for all the
diversity and multiculturalism — by liberal Democrats and conservative
Republicans alike — much of white
What makes the
Here's an example: I'm in line at a store,
listening to two white men in front of me, as one tells the other about
construction job. He says: "There was this guy and three Mexicans
next to the truck." From other things he said, it was clear that
"this guy" was Anglo, white, American. It also was clear that this
man had not spoken to the "three Mexicans" and had no way of knowing
whether they were Mexicans or
Here's another example, from the Rose Garden. At a
conference, President George W. Bush explained that he believed
"There's a lot of people in the world who don't believe that people whose skin color may not be the same as ours can be free and self-govern. I reject that. I reject that strongly. I believe that people who practice the Muslim faith can self-govern. I believe that people whose skins aren't necessarily — are a different color than white can self-govern."
It appears the president intended the phrase
whose skin color may not be the same as ours" to mean people who are
This is not simply making fun of a president who
mangles the language. This time he didn't misspeak, and there's nothing
about it. He did seem to get confused when he moved from talking about
color to religion (Does he think there are no white Muslims?), but it
clear that he intended to say that brown people — Iraqis, Arabs,
people from the Middle East, whatever the category in his mind — can
themselves, even though they don't look like us. And "us" is clearly
white. In making this magnanimous proclamation of faith in the
people in other parts of the world, in proclaiming his belief in their
to govern themselves, he made one thing clear: The United States is
more specifically, being a real "American" is being white. So, what
do "we" do with citizens of the
What do we do with peoples we once tried to
take their land? People we once enslaved? People we imported for labor
like animals to build railroads? People we still systematically exploit
low-wage labor? All those people — indigenous, African, Asian, Latino —
obtain the legal rights of citizenship. That's a significant political
achievement, and the popular movements that forced the powerful to give
those rights provide the most inspiring stories in
But it doesn't answer the question: What do white "Americans" do with those who share the country but are not white?
We can pretend that we have reached "the end of
racism" and continue to ignore the question. But that's just plain
We can acknowledge that racism still exists and celebrate safe forms of
diversity and multiculturalism while avoiding the political, economic,
social consequences of white supremacy. But, frankly, that's just as
The fact is that most of the white population of the
Let's go back to the question that W.E.B. Du Bois said he knew was on the minds of white people. In his 1903 classic, The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois wrote that the question whites were afraid to ask him was: "How does it feel to be a problem?"
Du Bois was identifying a burden that blacks carried — being seen by the dominant society not as people but as a problem people, as a people who posed a problem for the rest of society.
Du Bois was right to identify "the color line" as the problem of the 20th century. Now, in the 21st century, it is time for whites to self-consciously reverse the direction of that question at the heart of color. It's time for white people to fully acknowledge that in the racial arena, we are the problem.
The moral task of white
We should not affirm ourselves. We should negate our whiteness, strip ourselves of the illusion that we are special because we are white, steel ourselves so that we can walk in the world fully conscious and try to see what is usually invisible to us white people. We should learn to ask ourselves, "How does it feel to be the problem?"
That is the new White People's Burden. Instead of pretending to civilize the world, let's try to civilize ourselves.-----------------------------
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the
University of Texas at Austin, board member of the Third Coast Activist
Resource Center (http://thirdcoastactivist.org),
and the author of The Heart of
Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege
and Citizens of the Empire: The
Struggle to Claim Our
Humanity. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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