The Plague of ‘Whiteness’
“As long as you think you’re white,” James Baldwin said, “there’s no hope for you.”
And if this seems counterintuitive — as though one might think white people are the only people with hope — he went on to say:
“Insofar as you think you’re white, you’re irrelevant. We can no longer afford that particular, romance.”
There’s something odd, and challenging here. It’s a strange way to put it: whiteness is supposed to be a privilege, something those interpellated as ‘white’ are getting something out of, not — as Baldwin seemed to believe — doom.
At its best, in a Du Boisian style of analysis, we can talk about privilege as a set of material effects, relative advantages, which have the effect of consolidating the loyalty of working class ‘whites’ to a system that harms them. And acknowledging the inadequacy of privilege as a concept, we can consider it sous rature, under erasure but legible for as long as we haven’t an alternative.
But hold on. Let’s not move too quickly to sense-making; as we’ll see, it isn’t always our ally.
I want to take you back to a moment last year. There was a man named Thomas Mair who engaged in an extraordinary act of violence.
He hunted Jo Cox, a pro-migrant centre-left member of parliament. He stabbed her in the chest with a dagger, shot her twice in the head and once in the chest with a sawn-off, and then stabbed her again, repeatedly.
The eroticism of Mair’s overkill, the physical proximity he chose as he set out seemingly to physically annihilate his victim, is hard to miss. It suggests a passionate identification with what he was trying to destroy: a counterattack upon desire.
In court, he gave his name as “Death to traitors!”
Now, we can pretend we know what’s going on here. There is a politics. Mair was obsessed with apartheid South Africa, and the southern United States. He was besieged by a persecution fantasy in which leftists and liberals were betraying the white race, had already betrayed it in the case of apartheid and Jim Crow. He was a believer in separation.
In a way, he gave force of arms to David Starkey’s express concern, at the time of the England riots in 2011, that ‘the whites have become black’.
But what kind of answer is that? It’s a story, a narrative, but it doesn’t make any sense. Murdering an MP, much less ferociously slaughtering one, won’t bring back apartheid. Besides, what did he think was being lost, if whiteness was being lost? What did he mean by whiteness? And what do we mean?
I want to take you to another act of violence from March of this year. This time an attacker named Khalid Masood, a Muslim convert born Adrian Ajao, slammed a fast-moving car into a group of people, crashed the vehicle, clambered out and dashed toward the Houses of Parliament with two huge knives, stabbing a police officer, before being quite predictably and efficiently shot to death. Never stood a chance of getting close to parliament, where presumably he imagined he might confront the centre of oppressive power, killed four, injured dozens — for what? To what end? We’ll never know what name he might have given in court because, unlike Mair, he was killed. Maybe, like Richard Reid, another convert, he would have declared, “I am an enemy of your country and I don’t care.”
Same day as that killing took place, the US air force bombed a school near Raqqa, killing thirty people. Trump approved it, but it was deployed in line with existing bureaucratic imperatives and strategies, within a certain jurisprudence and along chains of command. And the ideology of war and terrorism would have us believe, this makes sense, illustrating how the violence of imperialist states is constrained within reason, justice and humanity while that of opponents is nefarious, groundless, unchastened by decency. And if you don’t believe that, you can always take the consolation prize — the belief that there is some proportionate realpolitik material gain to be had from all this carnage. And to be sure, someone is getting something out of it, but it still doesn’t add up.
There is always a point in the life of white-supremacy and imperialism where the sense-making apparatuses breakdown. There is no mystery about the fact that US bombing raids, drone attacks, invasions, assassinations and so on always exceed any plausible strategic purpose. The occupation of Iraq was conducted as though, rather like Khalid Masood’s massacre, it was designed to thwart all strategic purposes. The destruction of the Iraqi state, the defiling of cities, the training and operation of death squads. Afghanistan, still rolling on, a war which saw even higher rates of aerial bombardments than in Iraq, with a statelet rump of warlords, patriarchs and religious fundamentalists mobilised in a war against other warlords, patriarchs and religious fundamentalists.
And now we’re at war with something calling itself the Islamic State, a brutally and garishly auto-Orientalising, religious fundamentalist and fascistic type of organisation, a direct product of the war in Iraq and beneficiary of the degeneration of the Libyan and Syrian uprisings against autocracy, one whose ostentatious brutality is somehow as fascinating for our newspapers as Satanic cults and Hitler-worship is to bored American mid-Western teenagers. And, predictably, the ground war has been won, more-or-less, only for us to discover (with yet another vehicular attack in New York City, and more afoot) that the ground war was only ever a phase in a mutating battle that we insist on seeing through to the darkest end.
There’s something desperately frightening and volatile and supererogatory about all of these situations. Yes, there are strategic imperatives involved, yes there are perceived interests, yes there is a concrete politics, yes the world is never completely lucid, yet the consistency with which we drive towards more chaos and bloodshed — and keep foolishly making sense of it — is exactly what led Freud to postulate the existence of a death-drive.
The psychoanalyst Octave Mannoni, still in an early phase of his ongoing attempt to decolonise his profession, wrote:
“The ghost of the former colonial subject haunts (without their being aware of it) relationships among whites who have never left Europe.”
Fanon, with his emphasis on colonial projection, and what he called the “sociodiagnostics” of a neurotic colonial situation, wouldn’t have been surprised by this. Nor should we, since it is a well-known fact that the dread of migrants in British politics, upon which the success of the Leave campaign absolutely depended, is strongest in those areas where migrants are fewest or non-existent. It is indicative of an unprocessed colonial desire in circulation; a desire for a plenitude of being assured by the fantasised omnipotence of global white-supremacy. The British Empire. A desire turned inward and toward a defensive white nationalism.
But I wonder if we can still really talk about a neurotic situation? Certainly, there are suggestive analyses along these lines. J M Coetzee’s Freudian take on the apartheid mind, on its obsessional-neurotic structure, its attempt to ward off death by waging a war on shit — and its belief that the similarity of conditions among poor blacks and whites would lead to the whites becoming black, and the structuring principle of race disintegrating into an indistinct pulpy mass — has eery resonances with the story of Thomas Mair, whose ritualised defences against shit included the careful, pristine, well-ordered hoarding of toilet paper.
But I don’t know if that’s generally valid any more. In her updating of Fanon’s work, systematically deploying the Lacanian categories that Fanon himself occasionally alluded to, Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks argues that what we call ‘whiteness’ is rooted in unconscious signifiers. What does this mean?
Well, you’ll have noticed how invisible whiteness often seems to be. Barbara Fields points out that we only tend to see race when a non-white subject is involved: that’s why there are scholars and black scholars, women and black women.
Outside of racial crises, when the defenders of whiteness emerge to aggressively conserve and restore supremacy, whiteness is somehow both determining and not there, a present-absent cause. The race-of-no-race, unmarked. To be ‘white’ is somehow to be both centrally involved in the production of race, yet also at some day-to-day level convinced that one’s whiteness has no bearing on one’s interests or actions. It’s analogous to the way in which we only notice nationalism when it is oppositional.
Another way to put this is to say that the signifier of ‘whiteness’ is unconscious. And it is part of a combinatory of signifiers, starting with the black-white binary and unfolding into potentially endless permutations: the n+1 of race. Seshadri-Crooks writes that:
“To be raced is to be subject to the signifier Whiteness.”
And what exactly is that signifier doing? Well, to grasp this we have to understand how Lacan sees human experience as being roughly divided up into different registers: the imaginary, the symbolic and the real.
The imaginary dimension is the order of images, which you first experience perhaps as an infant, catching your reflection in the mirror and being told by your mother: “that’s you”. And that dimension comes to include all the identifications you form, the way in which you internalise the descriptions that other people make of you, starting with your parents. You form an imaginary ego.
But, then we start to learn language, and culture, and we are given prohibitions, and law: that’s the symbolic order. We internalise these prohibitions, and we start to repress. The domain of language is the domain of signifiers, and Lacan argues that the image that you might have of yourself is held in place and given its distinctive social and cultural and psychic meaning, by the signifiers attached to it. So just seeing an image of so-called ‘white skin’ would be meaningless: there would have to be a signifier of whiteness attached to it, giving you a comprehension and memory of yourself as a white subject.
And then, third, there’s the real, the irreducible kernel of human experience that eludes image and symbol, which can include elements of sensuous experience, drives, and so on. This is the element, you might say, of madness in us all. What Michael Eigen calls the “psychotic core”. The part of us that has no accountability to reason or logic. The real is manifested mainly in its effects, in the way it distorts the surface of reasoning and imaginary identifications. Maybe at night you get obscure fears. Maybe if you see a spider in the bathroom, you jump two feet. Maybe if your partner smiles at someone else, you experience an unaccountable and totally irrational fear of abandonment. Maybe you find yourself doing self-destructive things, which you don’t understand. This is just the quiddity of human experience, the warp and wend of life. Run it through the filter of race, of course, and it becomes something else. If Europeans once dreamed of black people they had never met, one wonders about whom they now dream? Maybe in place of a fear of spiders, you get a fear of Muslims. Maybe when we talk about terrorism, one of the things we are talking about is white terror.
What does the signifier of ‘whiteness’ offer? D H Lawrence once wrote, in Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine, of the great chain of being. He suggested that life was more vivid in the dandelion than in the green fern, more vivid in a wren than in an alligator, more vivid in a cat than in an ostrich… and “more vivid in me, than in the Mexican who drives the wagon for me”. He went on, “We are speaking in terms of existence: that is, in terms of species, race, or type”. Whiteness is being introduced here, you might think, to bring the ecstatic encounter with nature under some sort of control. Because whiteness promises an impossible fullness, an unreal plenitude of being. That’s what Seshadri-Crooks means in calling it a ‘phallic signifier’; it is the signifier that can say it all. The idea that one can have access to some maximum of enjoyment in the community of whiteness. Now, there’s something quite uncanny and frightening about the idea of absolute being, absolute enjoyment. It’s like this: if you have everything, you don’t want for anything; there’s nothing left to desire. Life becomes horrendous. Not only that, but insofar as limit is law in an anthropological sense, to be without limit is to be free to do anything: completely impossible as a basis for community. So, lack has to be restored somewhere, and it is restored in the signifier of blackness. And from within this binary, rooted in the unconscious, secretes racial fantasies, fantasies of lawless omnipotence, frontier fantasies, empire fantasies, slaveholder fantasies.
Sheldon George, in his psychoanalytic study of trauma and race, points out the consequences of this for African Americans subject to these signifiers. Whites, in the slave south, were hardly denied any right over slaves, because the normal operations of limit didn’t apply. Insofar as slaves were permitted any fantasy of being whatsoever — and fantasies of being are absolutely inescapably part of a liveable existence — it had to come from the Church. Perhaps the only thing that wasn’t really permitted to white men was homosexual desire for black men. Vince Woodard wrote in The Delectable Negro of how the unconscious desire for black male flesh, the repressed homoeroticism of white men, was canalised in relations of paternal violence, savage lashing out, and even instances of cannibalism. Baldwin once speculated that were it not for post-emancipation migration, the entire region might have become “an absolutely homosexual community” based on white male desire for black men. And this must be one of the things that is meant by colonial desire, and one of the things that is taking place when white people dream of black people whom they have never met; both a projection and a desire. Or, to put it another way, both a desire, and a counterattack upon desire.
But this is still speaking within the domain of a neurotic structure based on repression and father figures and paternal sovereigns. Now, those traditional, stern father figures are in decline, and that’s a very good thing, but what happens if these relations begin to dissolve in a way that preempts and deflects the emergence of a productive alternative to paternal law? If, in other words, a major factor in their dissolution is capitalism and its market-mediated routes to satisfaction? Well, I think the MRA community and their worship of the Primordial Father Trump is part of the answer to that. You might know that in Freud’s myth of the Primordial Father, the idea was that there was an ancient male who had limitless access to all the women; and that his sons (whom I guess the MRAs would call beta males), in the interests of distributive justice, had to kill him and impose what we now call Oedipality, the law of fathers, divvying things up and allocating rights along patriarchal lines. Well, the decline of traditional fathers and the heteronormative sexual relations that they prop up, is creating all sorts of chaos in the Kingdom of Oedipus. The idea that boys are destined to be men, and girls are destined for men, is disappearing. It’s no longer really clear who is supposed to be fucking whom. The panic among some that this is generating leads to a revival of the Primordial Father myth in the terms of a bastardised Darwinism, and a vulgarised evolutionary psychology: the alpha male is back on top, thanks supposedly to the hardwiring of the “female hindbrain”, and all his beta male sons are left with nothing but porn and Reddit.
Well, in a way, this is a situation that would tend to select for what Lacan called a psychotic structure, based on the foreclosure of law and limits. And without the paternal law to anchor experience, to give it a coherence and continuity, psychotic experience can be one of being bombarded, blasted, assailed by bits of reality, objects, voices, numbers, “incandescent alphabets” as Annie Rogers put it. The spontaneous self-cure for this is to create a delusion that somehow pulls all this together. But a delusional structure remains stuck in the imaginary order of identification, rivalry and aggressivity. And it involves, rather than repression of whatever is unbearable, its projection, its externalisation, so that it is experienced as attacking one from the outside, threatening one with annihilation. In that sense, Fanon’s work stressing the projection and moral splitting involved in colonial ideology and practice, already alludes to a psychotic kernel. And perhaps, in a way, the psychotic kernel in all of us is being liberated. Which, if true, would raise the stakes of social conflict considerably by weakening the mediating structures of the symbolic order, and leaving us with a whiteness that is primarily an aggressive response to its own projections, its own dread of (and fascination with) annihilation, its own desperate search for a delusion, or a master with a delusion, to give it some sense of making sense?
I am not, for a second, suggesting that we should organise ourselves in a panic over the generalisation of psychosis, and begin stigmatising it. As I suggested, it is a universal dimension of experience. What is more, as Rogers shows us, while it is a source of suffering, there is also a lot that can be productive in psychotic experience. Nor am I suggesting that we are already there. This is a matter of tendencies, potentials, directions.
Going back to colonial hauntings, there’s a short story by Ellis Sharp called Dead Iraqis from 1991 in which the charred bodies of former colonial subjects don’t so much haunt as hang about, causing a nuisance to morally apathetic, dissociating English people — and that moral apathy and dissociation, by the way, is what we call stoicism, the stiff upper lip, the spirit of the Blitz. This is a classic example of what the surrealists called depayssement, wherein something takes a detour, appearing outside of its usual context. What would happen if those dead Iraqis began to explode? What would happen if, to put it more precisely, someone in the UK, racially oppressed, abused, lacking an alternative political vehicle and identification, were to identify with a dead body? What if, in an era in which Islam is the new black, racially persecuted, surveilled, punished, demonised, they were searching for their own delusion, and found it in the idea of martyrdom? In this volatile situation, it need only be a handful, many of them converts, or at least with a decidedly ambiguous relationship to traditional Islam. If certain forms of whiteness thrive on the prospect of annihilation, so clearly do certain forms of what might be called counter-whiteness. And they are mutually, though certainly not equivalently, co-constituting. In a nuclear world, where this principle is structuring, annihilation is a very real prospect.
This spiral that we’re locked into is one of many death-spirals if truth be told. It’s a cliche and a piety to refer to our duty to save the planet and prevent climate change. Well we’re too late. Every sign tells us the change is already irreversible. The signs of biomass depletion, carbon concentration, ocean acidification… we’re talking about driving ourselves toward a planet in which the food chain collapses and the oxygen supply depletes. The Paris Accords are approved of by the US fossil fuels industry, precisely they won’t prevent this. For reasons unknown, the planet undergoes a mass extinction event roughly every 26 million years. That’s the consensus; we just don’t know why, although it’s often linked to carbonisation of the atmosphere and abrupt changes to living systems. Humans exist because, by some freak chance, one of our ancestor species got through an era in which the planet was very low on oxygen, and was nocturnal enough not to be eaten by dinosaurs. There’s no reason we have to be here. We seem to be determined to hasten the next extinction event — indeed, it is already underway — and not to survive it this time. And I don’t think you can talk about the political dynamics locking us into species-death unless we talk about capitalism, race and fantasies of omnipotence, of absolute mastery over everything we call nature (which, of course, in white-supremacy, includes all non-white humans).
If we rush to make sense of these things, we are unconsciously relying on the signifiers of race to do so. We are making things appear to make a spurious sense, covering over the disconnects and nonsense of this terrifying, chaotic global system, with the unwitting aid of whiteness. And that’s reconciling us, in a way, to a status quo that should horrify us.
Whiteness is not a privilege, but a plague. Even those who obtain a relative advantage from it — and the relative advantages grow as you ascend the class chain, and shrink as you descend — are still kidding themselves. You listen to them talk about climate change, the white middle class right in America, and increasingly you hear the subtext become text: we, affluent white people, can survive this. It might even be good for us, because it will be bad for poor people, black people, it will be bad for the Chinese, the Indians, the competitors. And if it freezes over Europe, well, they had a nice run. This is lunacy. Climate systems don’t work that way; they don’t respect the boundaries of racial metaphysics or national boundaries. Human beings are the only ones who do, and that’s why we’re propelling ourselves to ultimate destruction.
In warning of a raising of the stakes, I want to clarify that I’m not against social conflict, or militancy. We need militants in this situation. We need people who are prepared to contend. We need converts. And I don’t mind using, even if parodically, the language of religion. Because I want to know, not how to get someone to be more polite about their unconscious racism, how to manage it better, how to reflect on it in order to become more civil. There are, of course, worse things than bourgeois civility. But I fear that ultimately it fosters idolatrous attachments. As would we if we subscribed to a notion of ‘whiteness’ that was too univocal, too absolute, too undifferentiating, not sufficiently attentive to its contradictions. To even use the idiom of ‘whiteness’ here is inherently a compromise, made in order to speak at the highest level of formal abstraction. Beyond that level of abstraction, attempts to constitute a politics based on whiteness as a privilege or a property involves defaulting on concrete analysis at best; and at worst, solidifying the attachment to this signifier and its symptoms.
Identity in the modern sense is necrological. It is an obituary notice that overwrites us, in lapidary fashion, with the deposit of history: race, class, sex, nation, a list of attributes. It is somehow both about singularity and belonging; who we uniquely are, and who we are like because of our ancestry. We feel the urge to belong, and one of the worst punishments is banishment from a community (beginning with the childhood experience of being made to stand in the corner, facing the wall). Yet the claims of group experience can also be oppressive. They demand too much of us. Conformity is mocked, but so is pretension. Our mother-tongues attract and repel us. We are ambivalent about our identities and they are ambivalent about us. They chew us up, but they also spit us out. And idolatry, the worship of a particular identification, is a way of suppressing that ambivalent relationship. We need to explode the contradictions, to prise open the claims of race, the work that it makes us do on its behalf. We need to free ourselves of the signifier of whiteness, and the political fantasies and imaginaries that it helps to organise.
We should be recruiting people, converting people, to radical transformation. And I have no apologies to make, I will call that socialism. Conversion is a good place to start, because it is talking to someone on the level of their desire to change, both themselves and the world. Someone radicalises for the first time, they’re already changing, every bit of them, from head to toe, in ways they don’t even know yet. And it is to them, that you can, say, as James Baldwin did:You can have your good conscience. You can have your anti-racist piety. You can have your radicalism. You can have everything as politically correct as you like. But let me tell you, friend, as long as you think you’re white there’s no hope for you. You’re a lost soul.
Your ‘whiteness’ is not your ally, not your privilege, not your enabler, but a plague, and as long you think you’re white there’s no hope for you.
But in the Book of Samuel it says, when you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the mulberry trees, you’ll know the move is on. Get ready. You’re about to fight the Philistine Army.
Richard Seymour is a founding editor of Salvage, an author and a broadcaster. He is the author of The Twittering Machine (2019), Corbyn(2016, 2017) and others. His writing appears, among many others, in the Guardian, the London Review of Books, and Al Jazeera.