NOTE: A few years ago on the professional site BruceGodfrey.com, I posted an essay about white identity as a component of an American caste system. This post is, to some extent, a sequel to that post.
As a species, we handle pain more gracefully than we handle cognitive dissonance or meaninglessness. White identity in the United States is bound up with a lot of latent cognitive dissonance and meaninglessness, and so many American white people, challenged regarding their identity and what it entails ethically and morally, get nastier than they would after, say, a car accident that inflicts a physical injury upon them. Some have termed the at times extreme resistance of white people to facing the historical, political and ethical ramifications of white identity in the United States “white fragility.”
Whatever we call it, the fact remains that a large number of white people are engaged in hard-core cognitive dissonance that covers over a pit of meaninglessness regarding their own identity – particularly if they have an ethical core that it is in conflict with this identity, as applied.
Perhaps a very small counterexample might be illustrative. In Switzerland, people tend to have a pretty comprehensive identity based not just on being Swiss but on their specific language, dialect, region (Kanton), municipality or township, religion, etc. In part due to the mountainous terrain, dialects have developed quite differently even in short “how the crow flies” differences. An example of this would be the alpine Kanton of Graubünden, where several German dialects, Italian and five dialects of Romansh, a little known Romance language, are native. Graubünden has around 200,000 people – slightly larger than Carroll County, Maryland but with about 6 times the land area of that county. Romansh speakers may have to exert effort to understand the different Romansh dialect 7 train stops away in the next valley. Different municipalities have different official languages and languages of elementary school instruction (most of course also learning English and another Swiss national language.)
Local identities, even micro-identities. are strong; in many countries, speakers of one or another language would feel the need to surrender a mother tongue in favor of an official one, but Swiss society is decentralized and makes some (imperfect but real) accommodation for such identity. Most countries would not spend public money to protect a minority language of 50,000 people, but Swiss television and radio have regular Romansh programming.
The counter-example to the Swiss-style from the experiences of white Americans is extreme. While the concept of states’ rights [sic] (more properly, powers or jurisdiction) is an important theme in American political structure going back to the Federalist Papers, both the United States and the several states have exerted power to rub out the cultural identity of whites in favor of a caste identity here. America has basically offered a Borg-like bargain to white immigrants, white colonists and their great-grandchildren: be assimilated or be banished. But assimilated into what?
As discussed at length in my “White Elephant” post noted above, very little unites white Americans distinctively as a group – including most or all whites, excluding most or all non-whites – except the badges and incidents of white privilege itself. Let’s go back to our Romansh-speaking “Bündner” Swiss friends above. They know village by village the cultural fingerprint of their very language. They know the jokes, the poetry, the music, the tension between various aspects of their identities. Becoming Swiss is not easy, legally or culturally, but this is extremely true in Graubünden.
American culture offered a nervous, insecure bargain to incoming whites: become American, i.e. “white” by identity, and the opportunities of the country were yours. Not Romansh, not from Zuoz or Samedan or Chur, not from Wolfenweile (the Swabian town where my great-grandfather was born) but American – i.e. white de facto and de jure for the bulk of the country’s history. This is not to deny that incoming Europeans already knew they had white [sic] skin or to deny the existence of abundant racism in the old countries. But to assimilate, to Americanize, was to become a “white person”, with the legal status and expectations of whiteness.
Many of the nastier (not the nastiest, but relatively nasty) fights in American history have centered around how tightly white American identity was to be circumscribed. Anti-Catholicism remained a hard-core cultural element in American society until at least the election of President Kennedy; pastor Norman Vincent Peale – rarely identified as a hatemonger today – agitated against Kennedy’s election on the grounds that his faith was inconsistent with American identity, sovereignty. For a time, the “whiteness” of immigrants from largely Catholic European countries, such as Hungary and Ireland, was less than secure, as noted by Prof. Noel Ignatiev. The Know-Nothings of the 1800s, the Klan in its multiple iterations, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger’s pro-WASP eugenics advocacy, the racism of the Progressives such as Woodrow Wilson and the Temperance movement for Prohibition were all about pressing out the un-American “lumps” of whites into a uniformity – freedom, human identity and dignity be damned. Add the assimilation pressure on German-Americans after two world wars and you see the sub-identities of many white Americans getting hammered.
But into what were these lumps being hammered?
What do whites in America have that is identifying – common to all (or damn near) and never (or damn rarely) found among non-whites? Is it baseball? Not really, the sport is not really identifiable to American whites uniformly, especially today. Poker? Country music? Hockey? Most of these markers both color outside the “lines or whiteness” or fail to color all or most whites, with limitations by region or as common but very non-uniform identity markers. Even the food that one might find prepared in the kitchens of white Americans will be found commonly among other Americans or will hardly be common to all or most whites; the old joke about “(black) soul food” vs. “(white) home cooking” being nearly the same comes to mind.
Very little unites a white Southern farmer and a white millworker in Rhode Island that also excludes non-whites – except for the caste structure of white American identity itself – by law historically, by culture and economy de facto to this day. There is no “white” equivalent of a common language, music, heroes, jokes, assumptions, religious practice, except those imbued with the badges of American racial caste itself. Perhaps one can make the argument that whites regionally in a few places in the country, particularly the South, have some common cultural identity. American whites on meeting each other or making an new acquaintance do not generally acknowledge each other’s white identity as a topic of conversation as might happen among other groups in the society; there’s nothing to acknowledge, nothing to discuss. There is no white equivalent to the “black handshake” or “dap”; white people acting clumsily around such gestures have long been staples for comedy writers on short deadlines. Two Romansh speakers accidentally bumping into each other in New York’s Penn Station on vacation would probably have a lot to talk about.
If white Americans have latched onto white caste (what some call “privilege” or “low difficulty settings”) as their only marker of identity, and white caste itself is getting eroded by demographic, political and social change, then we shouldn’t be surprised that many white Americans are going to undergo cognitive dissonance in at least two ways (discussed below). Someone who, like me, had been an exchange student to Germany in the 1980s described his cognitive dissonance over Coca-Cola ads that urged the viewer to “trink” Coca-Cola; the German spelling threw him perhaps more than it should have.
Most of the defenses that white people might raise against my thesis wind up rolling back to white caste. “America stands for freedom,” one might urge. Yet these freedom-lovers will ignore, awkwardly:
- the historic need for, and compelling moral example of, the Civil Rights Movement – arguably the greatest movement for freedom in human history up to that time – in the face of generalized tyranny in the South (though not only there, for certain);
- the obscenity of identifying the US with “freedom” when a Civil War was fought over white supremacy and enslavement of millions
- the obscenity of the carceral state at the federal, state and local level
- street harassment, drug law enforcement and racial profiling by law enforcement, up to and including police homicides of the unarmed
“Freedom” is a slogan, and a popular one, but it’s hard to get white people to put hard money down on applying real, boots-on-the-ground freedom to non-whites, to stop honoring the traitorous generals and rebels who ordered lead and bayonets to be plunged and shot into the bellies of the United States Army’s best – in order to build a less free, more white-supremacist republic and to preserve slavery. Many white people get the “blue screen of death” on this issue, and not just in the South. Many other arguments urge against the conceit of American freedom, noting that it is too often a mere slogan for the stupidest sloganeers in the comments section of the average newspaper: many of our nanny-state laws, civil forfeiture in defiance of the freedom to make and use drugs, our immigration laws, the TSA’s digital sexual assault manual – all mock individual freedom, “freedom” slogans notwithstanding.
Some Americans will urge that the U.S. flag stands for all of us, that it is a common identity that goes beyond white identity. It’s a nice thought. We should recognize however that it is a symbol of a federal republic against which many of those 50 states in its blue starred “union” have fought – by declarations of war, by passive resistance or “massive resistance.” Even recognizing the birthday of Abraham Lincoln was politically dangerous in the south for generations, though Robert E. Lee’s birthday is still recognized in parts of the South 153 years after Appomattox. The very existence of the Confederate flag (more properly, the battle standard of the Confederacy’s primary army in the east) as a symbol of resistance today to racial integration and federal authority should give us pause, particularly when we see it flying off of vehicles with Michigan and Pennsylvania plates. That flag never flew over slave quarters but it flew in battle against the United States in defense of white supremacist rebellion, and it lives on as a symbol not of unity but of the exact opposite – of white Southern identity.
The real cognitive dissonance hits, though, when it’s a white American with some kind of moral compass. While Sarah Jeong may think the worst of white Americans, the reality is that white people aren’t different from the rest of humanity — generally not saints, generally not devils, generally imperfect, flawed and not that brave. Most got raised with some sense of right and wrong. Many will accept that their religion demands: “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Facing that their country – by propaganda, free and brave and the greatest country on earth and deserving of loyalty and heroism – put them and their ancestors unjustly into a superior caste and enslaved others, makes white people extremely uncomfortable. It should; if you give a damn about injustice, and consider the duty to pursue justice as mandatory at least for 45 minutes on Sunday morning, you are going to have a hell of a time looking in the mirror and consider yourself to be “living justly and loving mercy” in the words of Micah. So people run like hell away from the cognitive dissonance – especially white liberals with “COEXIST” stickers on the back of theirs Saabs.
If you don’t give a damn about injustice – and a lot of people including white Americans don’t really – the cognitive dissonance isn’t so bad. You just hate losing caste advantage, the expectation of being treated as a “white, clean girl” or the like, when you see that the demographics of the country are changing The nobles of 1800s England and Wales hated losing their de facto caste power with the Enclosure Movement and the growth of bourgeois (i.e. commoner) commerce and industry. It sucked and they sometimes acted out badly. We are seeing a lot of this with some sectors (certainly not all) of Trump’s support, the growth of the alt-right, the more brazen white supremacist movements, such as the one that wants a white-rights civil rights rally 60 feet from the White House’s north gate in the next few weeks. What specific civil rights concerns white people for themselves is beyond me, aside from a very few (but real) fact-specific instances of employment discrimination in a few places – for which legal remedies already exist.
The healthiest response, in my view, to the reality of this country’s history is one of humility. A whole lot of evil and a whole lot of good has occurred here and if you care about justice and injustice, good and evil, you should be humble. Beating your chest (outside of sporting events) for your country suggests that your country is awesome because it had you and you are awesome because of your country; neither of these is likely the case. If you don’t have moral and ethical values that transcend the accident of your birth here and (if true for you) in a favored racial caste, rather than in the village of Zuoz to Romansh-speaking goat herders in Switzerland, then your discussion of right and wrong will be pretty circular: your country right or wrong becomes the definition of right/wrong itself, welded irregularly to your national identity. “Justice, justice you shall pursue” was written 2300 years before your parents met.
Be humble and pursue justice by pursuing the truth, even if it makes you uncomfortable. You don’t have to engage in the neo-puritanical pious white liberal self-flagellation of the day; that won’t help anybody who has been harmed, who is suffering. Just recall that you, and this republic and every person and every country, are not exceptions to human nature but are instances of it. Deal accordingly, and humbly. We have a specific history. So do the Russians, the Tibetans, the Eritreans, and so do the Romansh-speakers going up and down the slopes of the Alps on the Rhaetian Railway. Observe the old virtues known to the Romans and before the Romans: humility, justice, fortitude, prudence. The truth, if we are brave, may yet set us free – individually from this cognitive dissonance and implied identity crisis, collectively from the worst aspects of our history to a more just future.