What White Folk Want by P.L. Thomas




(Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, p. 196)

What do white folk want?

Rigid accountability for other people.

License for “me” (the white view of the world is rugged individualism masking white nationalism/supremacy).

And “whiteness” never to be named, never voiced—only allowed to be embedded as an understood in “human” (“There is only one race, the human race”) or “lives” (“All Lives Matter”).

This last point is vital for the first two, in fact, and appeared recently on a Twitter exchange:

Reich is recognized as a Democrat, a progressive or liberal associated with Bill Clinton.

Yet Reich offers what he intends as a racially woke Tweet, only to expose the power of whiteness not to be named. Reich, of course, means “Black people weren’t even considered people by white people on July 4, 1776,” but omits the white context because in the U.S. whiteness is a given.

Even or maybe especially to, as Martin Luther King Jr. described, the “white liberal who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice, who prefers tranquility to equality.”

The mythologies masquerading as history leave out that white people came to the Americas to escape a specific religious persecution of them—in order to establish their own brand of persecution with them in charge.

The eventual rebellion from England, again, was not about universal human freedom, but about restarting white/man dominance on stolen land:

Let’s put our heads together
And start a new country up
Our father’s father’s father tried
Erased the parts he didn’t like (“Cuyahoga,” R.E.M.)

July 4, 1776, represents another independence for white men, the wealthy a bit more free than others. And, like Reich’s Tweet, the Preamble has a glaring omission: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [white] men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

That independence for white men begun in the summer of 1776 also included their freedom to enslave humans as well as freedom to rape the enslaved.

But that use of “freedom” is also misleading because with the Declaration we witness a country established in the first two points above—accountability for other people who are not white or male, and license (not freedom) for “me.”

Well into the next century, the U.S. begrudgingly ended enslavement, and not until the next century did women earn the right to vote. Four decades after that, civil rights were acknowledged for Black people (again begrudgingly as well as with violent resistance and symbolic protests often by white political leaders in the South).

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness have come quite a bit later and in our recent past for LGBQTIA+ people.

However in 2020, to understand the U.S., as James Baldwin repeated throughout his career, you can still expose whiteness by its relationship to Black people and Blackness; for example, the Reich/Moore Tweets.

What do white folk want?

Black Americans who assimilate into the unspoken whiteness called “American.”

But in that assimilation, there can be no confronting of whiteness. Certainly no dismantling.

White folk want Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan, not Muhammad Ali or Colin Kaepernick.

White folk want Ben Carson or Clarence Thomas, not Barack Obama (a master assimilator who, however, rose too high).

White folk want the passive radical myth of Martin Luther King Jr., only tolerating MLK until he rose too high and had to be sacrificed to make that myth possible, not Malcolm X or James Baldwin.

White folk want white Jesus, not historical Jesus.

White folk want O.J. Simpson and Bill Cosby, not Dave Chappelle.

White folk want Ta-Nehisi Coates, not #BlackLivesMatter.

Fit in to get in but don’t rock the boat.

Along with the unspoken given of whiteness and the essential rugged individualism myth to maintain white privilege comes the need for holding other people accountable and clinging to white license.

The frailty of whiteness has been exposed by Covid-19, in fact, even as the virus disproportionately ravages Black Americans—a painful real-life science fiction allegory of U.S. racial inequity.

The anti-face mask movement is white denial, white privilege, and white fragility in real time acknowledging very little about individual or public health but demonstrating that white folk want license, not universal human freedom.

Driving intoxicated is not freedom, it is license.

Public smoking is not freedom, it is license.

Refusing vaccines is not freedom, it is license.

Not wearing a face mask is not freedom, it is license.

But whiteness requires that the world be seen only as “I” and never “we” because “individual freedom” is a powerful code for white license.

White Americans are panicking because they sense a loss of white privilege, of white license.

The sort of white license that allows you to murder Black people but have your name emblazoned on public buildings, ground your political career in racism but have your name emblazoned on public buildings, lead a military revolt against your country to protect the license to enslave people but have statues built in your honor, or boast about grabbing women by the “pussy” but become president of the U.S.

It is 2020 and what do white folk want?

Rigid accountability for other people.

License for “me.”


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