"Why do you fellows always talk in terms of race!" he snapped, his eyes blazing.
"What other terms do you know?" I said, puzzled.
~Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
How many immigrants who either fit into the category of "White" or "Honorary White" is it that have asked me- once picking up on my pro-Black sentiments- "Why is everything in America about Black and White?" I myself couldn't even tell you the number. I've lost count of how many, and there have been many, with each new repetition feeling more and more like a sign of pro-White America's voice the world over. So let me begin with a sketch of my thoughts on the matter.
First, a question that should be asked is why aren't these questions being asked of those Americans who are actually Black- whether by self-identification or by outside labeling? Why is it, that when these questioners look around their social circles they find the vast majority are either of the same ethnic groups as them (which is extremely understandable, given the immigrant experience), or else are of very similar skin tones to them? The first issue is not really an issue for me, but the second point very much relates to the topic at hand. If, as they seem to think, the United States isn't classified along Black-White lines, then why is it that immigrants who are classified according to U.S. policies as "Black" tend to find themselves "naturally" associating with Black Americans and those who fit into the category of "Honorary White" or "White" tend to find themselves "naturally" associating with other Honorary White Americans and White Americans? The answer to the very question they are asking lies within their own experiences here- it ain't hard to tell, but it's very hard to face. Perhaps it's because America abroad is portrayed through the lense of a pro-White narrative, it becomes confusing for immigrants to match their experiences inside the country with this propagandized version of the United States outside of it.
Starting with this, I want to delve deeper into the actual question: Why is it that everything in America is about Black and White? Certainly, America itself is not, nor has it ever been, comprised only of Western European immigrants (who eventually came to call themselves and think of themselves and other Europeans as "White" over a long, drawn-out, and damaging process) and imported and immigrated African slaves, servants, and mariners (who have been called "Black" by Europeans, Persians, and Arabs for quite some time, but the actual defining and categorizing of "Black" wherein these people came to think of themselves and see themselves by these constructed terms came about through a long, drawn-out, and horrifically scarring process). So why is it then that so much of American culture centers around this polarization?
Well, skipping over Manichean or Zoroastrian influences on Christianity to see the world as comprised of the dual governing forces of good and evil and light and dark, or how this helped formulate early European conquerors' notions of the "Black" native "savages/cannibals" of the Caribbean and the American East Coast in contrast to their "White" "superior civilization"; and also, for the sake of time, how this categorization of "Black" and "savage" became transferred in tandem to the newly imported and equally enslaved and terrorized African workforce, let's look at more modern manifestations of these old arguments and how they play out today. Ralph Ellison brilliantly allegorizes American society in a scene in his book Invisible Man where the main, unnamed, Black character goes to work in Liberty Paints- a paint company that supplies its best seller, "Optic White," to the government to whitewash its monuments with. In fact, the company was founded for the very purpose of producing this paint for the government. On the surface the company is managed by Honorary Whites and Whites- White Americans and immigrants working to fit into that same category- but its actual workings are dictated by the unnamed White Boss and Lucius Brockway, an aged Black man hidden deep in the boiler room bellies of the plant, and who fights viciously against the new immigrants being sent in by the higher-ups to learn his trade secrets. Lucius proudly insists that it was he and the Old Man- the White boss who first founded the company- who built the company from the ground up, with himself laying the pipes and foundations for the actual building. The company's best seller, "Optic White," is itself formed from a pure-white base distilled from Lucius' black organic elements combined in the boilers and then transformed into this magical white-out by the few drops of "black dope" that is allowed to go into it. In fact, this black dope must go into it, and it must be of the right variety in order to create the "Optic White" paint- a "white" paint that "is so white you can paint a chunka coal and you'd have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn't white clear through" (Ellison, 168), but that the close observer can see holds tints of grey from the black addition to it.
In my opinion, this is one of the most telling allegories of America and its pro-White agenda that we can see today. For one, the entire story itself is structured solely around Black and White: there are only White Americans and immigrants working to become White in the leadership and straw-boss roles, and only Black Americans who either exist deep in the foundations of the company or are college-educated scabs hired by the White overlords. The confluence of Native voices are completely absent, as are any from the ,multitudinous variety of those labeled "Asian." The entire company is founded on the production of Whiteness, and thus its very inner make-up becomes a mirror of this agenda as well. Thus, you need the carefully measured number of Black additions to the vast bucket of Whiteness in order to make the whole thing work. But, as Ellison comes back to at the end of the novel,
"America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain. It's "winner take nothing" that is the great truth of our country or of any country.. . .Thus one of the greatest jokes in the world is the spectacle of the whites busy escaping blackness and becoming blacker every day, and the blacks striving toward whiteness, becoming quite dull and gray." (Ellison, 447)
Neither is able to escape from the influence of the other, and thus become so inextricably woven together that one can't imagine one's self without the "Other." Voilà , America and the secret of pro-White democracy.
This is a literary explanation of reality, but the ground-level story is far more- for lack of a better word- fucked up. "Deeply depressing mess we're in" is what Brother Ali calls it in "A Letter to My Countrymen" and a moral twisting that creates moral monsters is how James Baldwin figures it. To give some more concrete examples, let's begin with the ever-popular Brer Rabbit stories. These are stories that many link directly to West African tribal myths and philosophies that describe the world around them and proper behavior and that have survived on to this day in the American South. They indoctrinate the listener into a completely different worldview than that of Anglo-America or of popular Western European fairytales like Red Riding Hood, and give them different signposts by which to guide their lives. From the time Europeans started enslaving native tribes and then importing slaves from African tribes into the Americas so as to boost the production of their colonies to become abnormally profitable, most slaveowners have had their children nursed, reared, and (in the first part of their lives at least) instructed by their slaves- usually older, and most notably Native and African slaves, although in some areas other subject ethnic populations were conscripted for the same use. In the American South, Natives and Africans were those most frequently resorted to, and so these young children of slaveowners- who almost invariably grow up to become slaveowners themselves- are raised, quite literally, by the milk and at the knees of these older Native and African women and men. Thus, in the Southern mentality, the figure of the older servile Black Uncle or Mammy (who is most often pictured as Black, but can also be Indian) becomes a salvation figure of sorts, one that can save both them and their Whiteness. For the Southern mind, they are the drops of black dope that make the white paint. The level of moral twisting and deep monstrosity of this becomes apparent in the transmission of stories like Brer Rabbit. For most White Americans who are raised on Uncle Remus' Brer Rabbit tales, they become stories transmitted through a heinously racist representation of the bumbling, illiterate, ignorant and servile Uncle Remus telling the story in his slave quarters to the demanding and superiorly civilized Master's child. Stories indoctrinating the listeners to a profoundly African (or, some may argue, "Creole") worldview are transmitted in a way that also indoctrinates Whites into an innate understanding of their own "superiority," even as children, to the "inferior" and servile African slaves who are childish in comparison even if they are in their august years. And this is just the beginning. Stories of a profoundly philosophical nature like the Tarbaby- an a propos warning about greed or anger getting you caught inside a mess that you can't get out of- became horrifically twisted by White Supremacists into a racial slur of hate against the very people who raised them and gave them these moral fables.
If it seems I'm focusing only on Southerners, it's because for me, as a Southerner, I see the same pervasive racism that is so blatantly obvious in the South perpetuated throughout all America, just in less immediately evident ways. As many Black Americans have commented before in various different ways, "In the South, at least they'll tell you to your face they don't like your kind. Up here, they hide it behind a smile." The same moral twisting is evident in Chicago, in New York, in California, in Florida, in Michigan, in Oregon- and small wonder, given the huge historical role the South and people from the South have played in the politics and doctrines of the United States. If you don't believe me, take a second to consider just where exactly our nation's capital is located.
There are a few things that can immediately begin to be ascertained from all this. One, that one cannot discuss "Whiteness" without at least an implicit understanding and inclusion of "Blackness." The two are inseparable, and thus one big reason why the internal and external propaganda of pro-White American democracy focuses mainly on White Americans and a small number of Black Americans they can use to bolster the interests of Whiteness. Two, that doing so involves a rhyming repetition of the historical moral twisting that occurred within people to make them "White" in the first place, and in the process a perpetuation of the horrendously long and continuing list of grievances, injustices, genocides, and silencing of all those who can't be completely covered by this "Optic White"- or rather, those who are continually subject to the process of being covered by it. It's a twisting ingrained into the very fabric of American company and thus, without conscious effort, many immigrants play into the same segregated machinery that has kept American society so unequal since the first European conquests and colonies in this place.
Why is America all about Black and White?
Now that's a damn good question, there.