Arts & Culture / Convergence / Politics / Vol. 2 No. 1-2


Titus Kaphar, Behind the Myth of Benevolence

Image Credit: Titus Kaphar, Behind the Myth of Benevolence, oil on canvas, 59 x 34.25 x 7 inches, 2014

I’m speaking with a white friend about white people speaking among themselves about their racism. It doesn’t happen, she tells me. Nonetheless, she believes, probably we believe, that’s how whites would learn to build stamina regarding their collusion with structural racism. The least of it is the daily infractions they commit by saying and doing regrettable things, given their socialization in a culture that is set up to keep them ignorant of their ignorance. Their socialization fundamentally affects people of color, whether or not they are present for the institutionalization of their racist decisions, and omissions.

Because decisions get made that reinstate white hierarchies every day, it would be good if whiteness were marked and made visible to those and by those not invested in keeping it primary. Awareness has to happen in rooms where everyone’s white, since those rooms are already in place.

But, I tell my friend, I think it’s ironic that conversations allowing whites to speak openly about whiteness should start within segregated spaces. Aren’t these conversations which are ostensibly attempts to work on whiteness without reinstating white hierarchical thinking choosing white comfort over white discomfort and integration? Is that a problem? Cognition formation is in part influenced by environment.

My friend says this is a “stark” way to look at it. But if you’re white and you’re getting messages from your surroundings that reaffirm the idea that white solidarity is the way to organize your world, even while doing antiracist work, then how are you not going to believe that a constructed all-white world isn’t you at your most functioning? How isn’t that going to feel natural and right? Stark, yes. Ironic, yes.

Then a black friend says white people are taking over antiracism work. Is he serious? He means economically. He’s not being asked to run diversity workshops when white spaces can get white women to do that. I ask, isn’t that what black and brown people have been asking for? “It’s not my job to educate white folks”—isn’t that a phrase I’ve heard and disputed many times? Disputed because I feel, at least for myself, race relations and differences are more complicated than simply an ignorant dynamic I resent being party to. In any case, who knows where each individual dynamic could take me, what I could learn? We know but experiences extend the knowing? I do know my life, livelihood, and life possibilities depend on knowing more of certain things that white people willfully ignore. My friend’s survivalist orientation hopefully doesn’t mean he needs to take on a scarcity model regarding education and relationality. But I see his point.

Not long after this conversation, a white male friend attends a diversity workshop. He sends me crazy emoji faces during a faculty and staff workshop. I call as soon as he indicates the workshop is over. The session was run by two white women. Only one black faculty member was in the group. All were given examples of a classroom situation that seems to clearly involve racism.

The people in the workshop say the comparison between a black person and a monkey is a joke. Jokes can be used to own and not to own a moment, a feeling, or a racist feeling. I’m kidding. Lighten up. Jokes allow one to run from and own a thing simultaneously. Remember Pamela Ramsey Taylor, who commented on Facebook that “It will be so refreshing to have a classy, beautiful, dignified First Lady back in the White House. I’m tired of seeing a Ape in heels.” Lighten up.

Comparing a black person to a monkey is one of the oldest and most expedient forms of racism in the manual. Was it a white person who made the comparison in the scenario? My emphasis is on white and not on person. The individual in the moment is less interesting than their reference to the white supremacy the word monkey brings forward when positioned against a black person. The word monkey attempts to erase the personhood of the one it attaches to. Don’t “monkey this up,” Governor Ron DeSantis said during his gubernatorial race, and we all understood the statement historically meant don’t vote for the black man even as DeSantis denied it.

Theorist Benjamin Eleanor Adam observes that Google searches for the term evolution tend to portray the height of evolution as the body of a white male, thereby, “relating
whiteness and humanity, an association that has its roots in racial science and ethical justifications of colonialism, slavery, and genocide…. By presenting whites as the quintessential humans who possess the bodies and behaviors taken to be deeply meaningful human traits, whites justified, and continue to justify, white supremacy.” Hence use of the word monkey in relationship to black people places white men in the evolved position on the evolutionary line, an idiocy addressed by James Baldwin in an interview entitled “James Baldwin Discusses the Problem of Being White in America (1985):” “whites sought to civilize black people before civilizing themselves.”

If the structure that presents the scenario is itself racist, are the questions trick questions?

In the workshop, no one asks why the scenario leaves out the race of the student who states that the image of the black figure “looks like a monkey.” That might be helpful. White? Asian? Latinx? The “black students” who look upset are marked by their race. Is it beyond conceivable that white students could also be upset by this, or Asian students or Latinx students? Since there exists no scenario where white students are upset by the statement, are we to understand any distress they would feel to be insincere, passing, and not actionable?

As repeated by my friend, the white faculty and staff in the room insist on giving the “joking student” (is he/she/they white?) the benefit of the doubt. The lone black male faculty in the room offers up the thought that maybe the student didn’t mean anything by it. He, too, is willing to give the student (is he/she/they white?) the benefit of the doubt.

My white friend waited to see what the white women leading the workshop would say. They said nothing. They moved on after everyone who wished to respond responded. Only then did my friend interrupt to point out that while it might be a joke, it’s still a racist joke. If you all are hearing it as an innocent comment, what’s innocent about it? He asked. The black faculty member changed his alliances to support my white friend. Yes, that’s right, he added. Only then do the others suggest that the student (is he/she/they white?) be taken aside and spoken to. I wonder about the phrase “taken aside’.

The taking aside lends a privacy to the act, putting the student’s statement outside of the room, and fails to take into account the public distress the student (is he/she/they white?) occasioned.

At the periphery of my friend’s descriptions of the afternoon diversity training session pouring out of the phone, there remains a question: if white people don’t see their whiteness, how can they speak to it? Was the student white? Who wrote the scenario? The word diversity seems not to include any training to see ourselves?

After hanging up the phone I walk to my front door and open it. The lawn is covered over by fallen leaves. For all its apparent beauty, the dead leaves are rotting. The air is crisp. I close the door and return to my desk where I rest by lineating a statement from a Baldwin interview.

Tags: , ,