Tag Archives: Stereotypes

13 Racist Quotes Gandhi Said About Black People

Not All Peaceful: 13 Racist Quotes Gandhi Said About Black People

All quotes are direct quotations from The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. They are taken from his writings and statements during the years he spent working as an attorney in South Africa, before he went back to India in 1915 to fight for independence. Note: “Kaffir” is an offensive term in South Africa considered on par with “n*gger” in the U.S., though in Gandhi’s time some historians claim it was considered more neutral.

Gandhi in his 20s
Gandhi at 19

Indians Dragged Down to the Kaffirs

Before Dec. 19, 1894: “A general belief seems to prevail in the Colony that the Indians are little better, if at all, than savages or the Natives of Africa. Even the children are taught to believe in that manner, with the result that the Indian is being dragged down to the position of a raw Kaffir.”

Gandhi in South Africa
Gandhi in South Africa

Kaffirs Pass Their Lives in ‘Indolence and Nakedness’

Sept. 26, 1896: “Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw Kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”

Young Gandhi (1)

Kaffirs Would Not Work

Oct. 26, 1896: “There is a bye-law in Durban which requires registration of coloured servants. This rule may be, and perhaps is, necessary for the Kaffirs who would not work, but absolutely useless with regard to the Indians. But the policy is to class the Indian with the Kaffir whenever possible.”

gandhi lawyer

Indians ‘Infinitely Superior’ to the Kaffirs

Before May 27, 1899: “Your Petitioner has seen the Location intended to be used by the Indians. It would place them, who are undoubtedly infinitely superior to the Kaffirs, in close proximity to the latter.”

Boer War, Indian Ambulance Corps (Gandhi is in middle row, fifth from left)
Boer War, Indian Ambulance Corps (Gandhi is in middle row, fifth from left)

Indians Shouldn’t Be Taxed Like Kaffirs

May 24, 1903: “The £3 tax is merely a penalty for wearing the brown skin and it would appear that, whereas Kaffirs are taxed because they do not work at all or sufficiently, we are to be taxed evidently because we work too much, the only thing in common between the two being the absence of the white skin.”

gandhi with friend

Indians Forced to Live with Too Many Kaffirs

Feb. 11, 1904: “I venture to write you regarding the shocking state of the Indian Location. The rooms appear to be overcrowded beyond description. The sanitary service is very irregular, and many of the residents of the Location have been to my office to complain that the sanitary condition is far worse than before. There is, too, a very large Kaffir population in the Location for which really there is no warrant.”

Gandhi with friends
Gandhi with friends

Calamity Coming for Johannesburg

Feb. 15, 1904: “I feel convinced that every minute wasted over the matter merely hastens a calamity for Johannesburg and that through absolutely no fault of the British Indians. Why, of all places in Johannesburg, the Indian Location should be chosen for dumping down all the kaffirs of the town passes my comprehension.”

Gandhi in UK
Gandhi in UK

No Mixing Kaffirs With Indians

Feb. 15, 1904: “Of course, under my suggestion, the Town Council must withdraw the Kaffirs from the Location. About this mixing of the Kaffirs with the Indians, I must confess I feel most strongly. I think it is very unfair to the Indian population and it is an undue tax on even the proverbial patience of my countrymen.”

gandhi smile

Kaffirs Less Advanced

Sept. 9, 1906: “Even the half-castes and Kaffirs, who are less advanced than we, have resisted the Government. The pass law applies to them as well, but they do not take out passes.”

Gandhi (right) with brother
Gandhi (right) with brother

Even a Kaffir Policeman Can Accost Indians?

June 4, 1907: “Are we supposed to be thieves or free-booters that even a Kaffir policeman can accost and detain us wherever we happen to be going?”


Kaffirs Can Be Pleased With Toys and Pins

Feb. 2, 1908: “The British rulers take us to be so lowly and ignorant that they assume that, like the Kaffirs who can be pleased with toys and pins, we can also be fobbed off with trinkets.”


Kaffirs Are Uncivilized Animals

July 3, 1907: “Kaffirs are as a rule uncivilised – the convicts even more so. They are troublesome, very dirty and live almost like animals. Each ward contains nearly 50 to 60 of them. They often started rows and fought among themselves. The reader can easily imagine the plight of the poor Indian thrown into such company!”


Indians Must Stay Away From Kaffir Women

Dec. 2, 1910: “Some Indians do have contacts with Kaffir women. I think such contacts are fraught with grave danger. Indians would do well to avoid them altogether.”

Why Travelling with an African Passport is Difficult?

Why is travelling with an African passport so difficult?

 | Friday 11 September 2015 

Getting around Europe is a struggle, but it’s just as tough to cross borders in our own continent

Morocco v Cameroon - FIFA2010 World Cup Qualifier
 A 2014 ranking of countries by the strength of their passport revealed that Cameroonians can travel to only 43 countries of their choosing. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images

In the summer of 2003, a clerk at the US embassy in London informed me that under new 9/11 laws, I was considered “unstable”, and my request for a tourist visa would be denied. Never mind that on the invitation of my aunt – a US citizen – I had bought non-refundable, round-trip tickets to Philadelphia (both the written invitation and the confirmed bookings were prerequisites), or that I was at the end of the second year of a four-year degree course at Liverpool University, or even that I had a visa and job confirmed in France, where I would be spending my third year.

None of that mattered. I carried a Cameroonian passport, and the job of the consulate team was to presume I had no intention of leaving the US, unless my documentary evidence convinced them otherwise, which clearly it hadn’t. As I left the embassy, my face wet with tears, I invented scenarios to console myself: “Her husband has obviously just left her for her best friend, she’s obviously taking out her frustration on me.”

Over the years it’s not just Americans who have looked at my forest green passport and seen the warning: “Beware! Likely to spread contagion or disappear into the black market.” Queuing in Lille in northern France to upgrade my visa from visitor to work permit was like waiting in line with the disallowed – easily 200 of us jostling to be seen by the gendarmes, emotions ranging from hopeful to desperate, depending on how many times you’d been turned back for some trivial reason. “Revenez demain” (“Come back tomorrow”) became the most painful words to hear.

Much of my time in Britain has also been punctuated by the cycle of visa applications, the prices for which escalate with each change of government. My conversations with immigration officers have become something of a chess match: they make their move then I make mine.

“How long have you been in the UK?” I’m asked, as the immigration officer feels up the page to which my visa is stuck, checking to make sure it didn’t belong to a different passport. “Oh, only 10 years,” I say, insouciant; using my BBC Radio 4 voice. “What did you study at university?” “Do you mean my first degree or one of my masters?” Neither of us break eye contact.

They were only doing their job, but I felt as though I too was doing mine: subtly making the point that I had every right to be here. I’d studied a British curriculum, taught to me by British teachers in African schools; and after my parents raised the thousands of pounds needed to pay for the British university education they thought would help me establish my place in the world, I just wanted to be left to get on with it.

But this is not just a problem in the west. My most painful visa transactions have, sadly, been on the African continent – the place where passports should be recognised immediately for the useless, artificial construct they are; where members of the same ethnic group are separated by barriers imposed from outside.

But Africa’s leaders have been among the most ardent defenders of national boundaries. In 2013, the African Development Bank wrote: “African countries remain closed off to each other, making travel within the continent difficult. Africa is one of the regions in the world with the highest visa requirements. This situation is even more restricted for Africans travelling within Africa, as compared to Europeans and North Americans. On average, African citizens require visas to visit 60% of African countries.”

But immigration systems and visa requirements aren’t designed with actual people in mind. Instead, they are a reflection of the geopolitics of the day and of voter sentiment. The number of countries your passport grants you access to is directly proportional to how many friends your government has, and Cameroon’s Paul Biya is famously reclusive.

That said, Cameroon is not the worst. In a 2014 ranking of countries by the strength of their passport, Finns, Swedes and Brits can travel the most freely, swanning into 173 countries of their choosing. Cameroon came in at 43, alongside China, Congo, Jordan and Rwanda. The least desirable passport was Afghanistan’s, giving its citizens access to a paltry 28 countries.

The system is broken, and the idea that where you are born is a lottery exempts us from our collective responsibility to change that system. But I’m an idealist with wanderlust. So I studied hard for the Life in the UK test, pledged my allegiance to the Queen, and swapped my forest green passport for a crimson red British one – all so that I could just finally roam free.

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Highlights the Struggle for Acceptance

‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Highlights the Struggle for Acceptance

UN to Campaign Against Xenophobia, Racism in Dealing with Refugees

UN to campaign against xenophobia, racism in dealing with refugees

Reuters | May 10, 2016, 10.11 AM IST


UNITED NATIONS: The United Nations on Monday proposed that its member countries create and agree upon a system to share responsibility more fairly for the hundreds of millions of refugees and migrants around the world.

The global compact would be accompanied by a UN-led campaign to combat the xenophobia and racism that have tainted discussions of the refugees and migrants, UN officials said at a briefing to release a report on the global migration.

The UN estimates there are 20 million refugees worldwide and another 40 million people displaced inside their own countries. Of the refugees, 86 per cent live in developing countries, often near the countries they came from, it says.

Added to those figures are 244 million migrants who live and work in countries where they were not born, it says.

The campaign would attempt to counter an increasingly negative attitude and tone in debates over how to deal with the crisis, the UN said.

“I am concerned at the increasing trend of member states to erect fences and walls,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in the report.

“Xenophobic and racist responses to refugees and migrants seem to be reaching new levels of stridency, frequency and public acceptance.”

The proposals come ahead of a summit meeting planned at the UN in September to address the global refugee crisis.

The UN-led campaign will promote such steps as more direct, personal contact between refugees, migrants and people in their host countries, said Karen AbuZayd, UN special adviser on the summit.

Also, nations will be called upon to develop plans for including refugees and migrants in education, language and skills training and employment opportunities.

The global compact would require nations to share responsibility in a variety of ways so that a few nations do not shoulder much of the burden while others do far less, the UN said.

It might include resettlement policies, financing arrangements, aid to host countries and technical assistance, AbuZayd said.

“States will share responsibility for refugees more fairly. Host countries will receive immediate support for their development needs. International migration will be governed better,” she said.

Amnesty International called the plan a potential “game changer”, but said its success depends upon nations agreeing on a permanent system for sharing responsibility.

“World leaders cannot go on lurching from crisis to crisis, haggling over numbers and fiddling while parts of the world burn,” Amnesty said.

Citing “refugees in shaky boats, trapped at border fences or crammed into overcrowded camps where hopes and dreams wither”, it said: “Too often, these scenes of despair are borne not just from war and persecution but also of bad, callous policies.”

 Facilitating safe migration is included among the Sustainable Development Goals, a blueprint of plans for nations to fight poverty, promote equality and slow climate change by 2030. UN member nations signed the goals last fall.

“The UN estimates there are 20 million refugees worldwide” Out of this how many are Muslims? Almost all. Why should non Muslims be burdened with Muslim trash when the oil rich Muslim states… Read MoreCloudcompute

Beyond the Pale

BOOKS APRIL 12, 2010 ISSUE | By 



Miss America” (1987-88).Photograph by Lyle Ashton Harris / Crg Gallery

Glenn Beck excels at expressing adventurous thoughts in memorable language, but he outdid himself when, one morning last summer, he offered a diagnosis of President Obama. He said, “This President, I think, has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people, or the white culture. I don’t know what it is.” (The context was one of the summer’s most entertaining reality shows—the one starring the black Harvard professor and the white police officer who arrested him.) In September, Beck sat for an interview with Katie Couric, and she asked him a deceptively simple question, which had been posed by a Twitter user named adrianinflorida: “what did u mean white culture?” Whatever adventurous thoughts this query inspired, Beck did not seem eager to share them. “Um, I, I don’t know,” he said. Finally, after two minutes of temporizing, he arrived at a nonresponsive response that was both honest and sensible: “What is the white culture? I don’t know how to answer that that’s not a trap, you know what I mean?”

Often, the most appropriate answer to that question is a joke, or a series of jokes. In 2008, a canny young white Canadian named Christian Lander started a blog called “Stuff White People Like,” which soon became a best-selling book bearing the same title; it listed a hundred and fifty of white people’s favorite things, from recycling to the Red Sox. (This magazine made the list, too, at No. 114.) Lander’s tone is faux-anthropological but wide-eyed: “Bike shops are almost entirely staffed and patronized by white people!”; “After learning that a white person is pregnant, it is a good idea to provide a list of recipes for placenta.” His “white people” are wealthy, urban, youngish, and thoroughly blue—they “hate” Republicans, and although Obama hadn’t yet won the Democratic nomination, he placed eighth on the list. (Coffee was No. 1.)

Which means that Lander isn’t really talking about white people, or, at any rate, not most of them. In fact, he sometimes defines “white people” in opposition to “the wrong kind of white people,” because his true target is a small subset of white people, a white cultural élite. Most white people don’t “hate” Republicans—they have voted Republican in every Presidential election since 1968. A few months ago, a different and more demographically precise portrait of white culture arrived, bearing a fulsome blurb (“Revelatory!”) from Lander himself. The author is a black journalist named Rich Benjamin, and his book, “Searching for Whitopia” (Hyperion; $24.99), chronicles the years he spent in overwhelmingly white enclaves across America, from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to Forsyth County, Georgia. The people he meets tend to be politically conservative, and although they talk readily about the urban blight they left behind, they talk much less readily about race. Many in Idaho seem to agree with Helen Chenoweth-Hage, the late congresswoman, who responded to a question about the region’s lack of diversity by means of an ingenious euphemism. “The warm-climate community just hasn’t found the colder climate that attractive,” she said. Benjamin hears many disavowals of racism, and he has to drive an hour north of Coeur d’Alene, to a tiny Christian Identity church, in a town called Sandpoint, just to find someone willing to say, “I’m glad I’m white.” Even that statement, delivered from the pulpit, is swiftly followed by a disclaimer: “The Indian, the Mexican, and the black can be proud of what they are, too.”

Benjamin did most of his research toward the end of the Bush era, and perhaps he now wishes he had waited a few years. Obama’s election was a transformative moment for blacks in America, but it has also proved to be a transformative moment for whites. As a whole, white people voted for Senator McCain, and, with the growth of the anti-Obama backlash, especially in the form of Tea Party protests, the whiteness of the Obama opposition has become a political issue. Keith Olbermann, of MSNBC, called the Tea Party movement “a white people’s party,” and asked, in reference to the various marches and rallies, “Where are the black faces?” (The most adroit response came in the form of a YouTube video highlighting the all-white lineup pictured on the MSNBC Web site.) When Jon Stewart introduced a “Daily Show” segment on the Conservative Political Action Conference, he got a laugh from his studio audience by calling it a “festival of whites.” (Stewart’s show ranked thirty-fifth on Lander’s list.)

The organizers of the Tea Party rallies have made a point of inviting African-American conservatives to address the crowds. But there’s no denying that the Tea Party protesters tend to be white. Should we pretend to be surprised? Judging from exit polls, black voters made up about 1.1 per cent of the McCain electorate, which is lower than the historical average, but not by much. (In 1984, when President Reagan was reëlected in a landslide, black voters accounted for only about 1.5 per cent of his total.) American politics has been segregated for decades; the election of a black President only made that segregation more obvious.

But what of it? Why is it that, from Christian Lander to Jon Stewart, a diagnosis of whiteness is often delivered, and received, as a kind of accusation? The answer is that the diagnosis is often accompanied by an implicit or explicit charge of racism. It’s become customary to suppose that a measure of discrimination is built into whiteness itself, a racial category that has often functioned as a purely negative designation: to be white in America is to be not nonwhite, which is why it was possible, in 1961, for a white woman from Kansas living in Hawaii to give birth to a black baby. In a marvellously splenetic essay, “On Being White . . . And Other Lies,” James Baldwin argued that America had, really, “no white community”—only a motley alliance of European immigrants and their descendants, who made a “moral choice” (even if they didn’t realize it) to join a synthetic racial élite. And, in the nineteen-nineties, a cohort of scholars took up Baldwin’s charge, popularizing a field of research that came to be known as whiteness studies. In 1994, the white labor historian David R. Roediger published an incendiary volume, “Towards the Abolition of Whiteness.” Paying special attention to unions and strikes, he traced the unsteady growth of American whiteness, a category that eventually included many previous identities that had once been considered marginal: Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish. “It is not merely that whiteness is oppressive and false; it is that whiteness is nothing but oppressive and false,” he wrote. “Whiteness describes, from Little Big Horn to Simi Valley, not a culture but precisely the absence of culture. It is the empty and therefore terrifying attempt to build an identity based on what one isn’t and on whom one can hold back.” In his view, fighting racism wasn’t enough; white people who wanted to oppose oppression would have to do battle with whiteness itself. Nearly two decades later, amid a rancorous debate over our first black President, the idea of abolishing whiteness seems no less tantalizing—and no less remote.

In a wide-ranging new book titled “The History of White People” (Norton; $27.95), Nell Irvin Painter, a black historian of America, starts at the beginning, or near it. Her narrative opens in ancient Greece, with Hippocrates, who published his ethnography of the known world around 400 B.C. In assaying the tribes of Europe, he praised the “ferocity” of the mountain-dwellers, but he was less impressed by tribes who live where there is “a larger proportion of hot than of cold winds”—the warm-climate community, a few millennia ahead of schedule. “They are rather of a dark than of a light complexion,” he wrote, adding that “courage and laborious enterprise are not naturally in them.” In time, “ancients” like Hippocrates were seen as archetypes of racial purity and excellence. Painter quotes the eighteenth-century Swiss physiognomist Johann Kaspar Lavater, who delivered a plaintive verdict: “The Grecian race then was more beautiful than we are; they were better than us—and the present generation is vilely degraded!”

Like many of his contemporaries, Lavater was a devout craniologist, and it was through craniology that whiteness was given scientific validation. In 1793, a German anthropologist named Johann Friedrich Blumenbach received a skull from a colleague which he considered particularly pleasing; it had belonged to a woman from Georgia, in the Caucasus region, and Blumenbach declared that it was typical of the “Caucasian” race, a super-category that came to include most of the peoples of Europe. As Painter explains, Blumenbach was making an argument from beauty, and his belief in Caucasian beauty had a notable pedigree: decades earlier, Kant had noted that “Circassian and Georgian maidens have always been considered extremely pretty by all Europeans who travel through their lands”; the fact that these “maidens” were enslaved by the Ottomans was part of the appeal. The Caucasian race begins with an evocation of bondage, and the skull of a young Georgian woman helped seal the connection between whiteness and weakness. It is a delicate race, always on the verge of being overrun or adulterated, dethroned or debunked. The supposed perfection of whiteness makes it vulnerable: every flaw and quirk, every tangled bloodline and degraded specimen, is seen as an existential threat, poised to undermine the whole project.

In eighteenth-century America, whiteness came to connote the opposite of slavery. Whiteness in America was primarily Anglo-Saxon—Thomas Jefferson argued for American independence by adducing the example of “our Saxon ancestors”—but not exclusively so, and the presence of immigrants from elsewhere in Europe eventually nudged American race theorists toward a more miscellaneous idea of whiteness. In 1856, Ralph Waldo Emerson published “English Traits,” which includes a strange and suggestive chapter called “Race.” In it, he portrays the essence of whiteness as an elusive spirit. For a time, Norway had it, and Painter notes Emerson’s “affection” for the bloodthirsty old Norse sagas: “A pair of kings, after dinner, will divert themselves by thrusting each his sword through the other’s body, as did Yngve and Alf.” But even these brutes were, in their own way, as delicate as Circassian waifs. Somehow, the glorious moment passed—a few too many “piratical expeditions,” he suspects—and “the power of the race migrated and left Norway permanently exhausted.” Around the same time, in his journal, Emerson was experimenting with a more ambitious theory. “The Atlantic is a sieve through which only or chiefly the liberal adventurous sensitive America-loving part of each city, clan, family, are brought,” he wrote. “It is the light complexion, the blue eyes of Europe that come: the black eyes, the black drop, the Europe of Europe is left.” This is a powerful notion: America as a magical siphon, extracting whiteness from Europe.

Emerson is a high point in “The History of White People.” As the theorists and theories pile up, Painter starts to seem, like nineteenth-century Norway, a bit exhausted. She isn’t helped by the format she has chosen, which divides a long and circuitous story into a textbook-like series of three-page biographical sketches, and she often sounds bored by the now obscure race men she profiles: William Z. Ripley’s 1899 magnum opus, “The Races of Europe,” is “nonsense” that “could not survive a careful reading”; early twentieth-century Anglo-Saxonist theories are “blather.” One needn’t disagree with her judgments to wonder about her strategy: the tone and the format conspire to make these architects of whiteness hard to distinguish, and harder still to care about.

An odd thing about “The History of White People” is that there’s not more history in it: Painter underplays the social and political developments that were far more influential than the grand theories of whiteness. She mentions America’s one-drop rule only in passing. (The rule held—and, for the most part, still holds—that any person of mixed black and white ancestry is black, no matter the mixture.) And readers will have to search the footnotes to learn about the 1790 Naturalization Act, which made citizenship possible for any “free white person” of “good character” who had lived in America for at least two years. Long before it had any sort of coherent cultural or historical identity, whiteness in America was a broad, loosely defined political category, which is precisely why so many scholars knocked themselves out trying to fill in the details.

Painter aims for the conceptual heart of the race, but Roediger, the eminent abolitionist of whiteness, has always been more interested in its margins and boundaries. In 2008, just in time for the dawning Obama age, he compressed his decades of scholarship into a pithy little book, “How Race Survived U.S. History,” which has just been published in paperback (Verso; $19.95). He is alert to the shifting legal status of whiteness, and he underscores the 1691 Virginia law that banned “negroes, mulattos, and Indians” from “intermarrying with English, or other white women.” (Again, one of the defining qualities of whiteness is that it needs protection.) He also tells the story of Charles W. Janson, a British businessman who came to America in 1793 and, sometime during his thirteen-year visit, offended a white domestic worker by asking to speak with her master. “I have no master,” she said, adding, “I’d have you to know, man, that I am no sarvant; none but negers are sarvants.” Janson was shocked by “the arrogance of domestics in this land of republican liberty and equality”—shocked, that is, by a country where even the maids had something to be proud of, and someone to be prouder than.

“Could you stop referring to the interest rate as ‘the vig’?”

The end of the Civil War was a perilous moment for whiteness. Roediger writes that, in America, “scientific racism”—the sort of grand theorizing that Painter chronicles—emerged “in the context of the pro-slavery argument and as a response to abolitionism.” Whiteness survived emancipation by becoming more muscular and more self-referential: where once whiteness offered a specific legal benefit—it meant that you were unenslavable, a non-“sarvant”—now whiteness had to be its own reward. Roediger writes that some poor white laborers in the South started wearing brimless wool hats, to distinguish themselves from ex-slaves, who customarily wore straw hats. (According to one contested etymology, the sunburn such laborers suffered gave rise to the term “redneck,” which conflates race and class.) And he tracks the insurgent whiteness of the Ku Klux Klan, founded after the end of the war and revived in 1915, the year of D. W. Griffith’s blockbuster “The Birth of a Nation,” which portrayed Klansmen as heroic defenders of white virtue. (The pivotal scene involves a white woman on a cliff, who tells her black pursuer, “Stay away or I’ll jump!” He doesn’t; she does.) “The Birth of a Nation” included intertitles with brief history lessons from President Woodrow Wilson, and Roediger quotes the most famous card, which marks the transition from war to Reconstruction: “The white men were roused by a mere instinct of self-preservation . . . until at last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country.”

That astonishing sentence comes from Wilson’s “History of the American People,” but it’s not really a sentence at all: the ellipsis marks the removal of nearly seven hundred words. In Wilson’s original, the apologia for the Klan is meant to echo the eighteenth-century argument for American independence:

The white men of the South were aroused by the mere instinct of self-preservation to rid themselves, by fair means or foul, of the intolerable burden of governments sustained by the votes of ignorant negroes and conducted in the interest of adventurers: governments whose incredible debts were incurred that thieves might be enriched, whose increasing loans and taxes went to no public use but into the pockets of party managers and corrupt contractors.

The film depicts a clash between whites and blacks (one of the main villains is an ambitious mulatto politician), but, in this passage, “ignorant negroes” are a secondary concern, a mere symptom of a greater problem. In Wilson’s telling, Klan violence serves to defend white rights against “adventurers” from the North—that is, against other white people.

In the twentieth century, the struggle to define and defend whiteness was often presented this way, as an intra-racial struggle—white people against “the wrong kind of white people.” The race theorist Lothrop Stoddard warned against “racial impoverishment,” and enumerated the “alien stocks” that were taking over Rhode Island: “Poles, Polish and Russian Jews, South Italians, and French-Canadians.” Because of the legal tradition begun by the 1790 Naturalization Act, courts were often asked to judge the whiteness of immigrants from all over the world— Afghans and Armenians, Persians and Portuguese—and judges appealed to common sense, or to the anthropological entity known as the Caucasian race. But who counts as Caucasian? Madison Grant, in “The Passing of the Great Race,” a supremely pessimistic work of race theory first published in 1916, admitted defeat: “The term ‘Caucasian race’ has ceased to have any meaning, except where it is used, in the United States, to contrast white populations with Negroes or Indians or in the Old World with Mongols.” Grant was right that the putatively scientific term “Caucasian” was becoming interchangeable with its colloquial counterpart, “white”; both referred to a category that was growing simultaneously more inclusive (of Europeans) and more exclusive (of “Negroes” and “Mongols” and others).

But the borders of whiteness were never quite defined, let alone sealed. In an immigration report from 1911, a government commission declared that an “Arabian” was by definition Caucasian, a judgment that some of today’s politicians might want to appeal. The boundaries of whiteness have often reflected the imperatives of U.S. foreign policy. And there remains something particularly fraught about the whiteness of Italian-Americans, which has been contested for centuries. Roediger notes that “ ‘Guineas,’ an old marker for African Americans originally signaling their origins on the West African slaving coast, came to be applied widely and pejoratively to Italian Americans.” Now, of course, “guinea” has given way to “guido,” an anti-Italian-American slur that has been co-opted by its targets. The instructive MTV reality show “Jersey Shore” followed a group of self-described “guidos” and “guidettes” living in a beach house in New Jersey. In this tribe, the bond between skin color and identity had been decisively severed (with help from a nearby tanning salon), and it was discovered that not all the stars were of pure Italian heritage. One of them, known as Jwoww, posted a clarification on her Twitter page: “I’ve said a billion times I’m a spanish/irish!! Its a life style not an ethnicity or race the term ‘guidette’!!”

In current debates about whiteness, no identity is more destabilizing than “Hispanic.” The 2010 census explains that “Hispanic origins are not races,” and yet in America the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” indicate a population that is often viewed as a racial minority. (When Anglos in America think of the Latino “race,” they are often thinking of the identity known in much of Central and South America as mestizo, which refers to mixed-race descendants of Europeans and various indigenous groups.) In “Searching for Whitopia,” Rich Benjamin is surprised to find himself drawn into conversations with white residents about illegal immigration, especially from Mexico. “For the first time in my life, I am treated like an innocent bystander to the ‘scourge’ of race and poverty,” he writes. “Latinos now take the heat.”

In 1963, when George Wallace was inaugurated as the governor of Alabama, he told the crowd that he was standing in the “heart of the great Anglo-Saxon Southland,” and he issued his famous rallying cry: “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” But when Wallace campaigned against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 he stated his case more circumspectly, saying, “This civil-rights bill will wind up putting a homeowner in jail, because he doesn’t sell his home to someone that some bureaucrat thinks he ought to sell it to.” Wallace professed to be defending the common “homeowner,” presumably white, against the faceless “bureaucrat,” also presumably white. It was possible for Wallace to portray himself as a defender of the white race without mentioning race at all.

This was not a new strategy. Throughout history, the power of whiteness has often been linked to its invisibility: white supremacy lurked in seemingly race-neutral language, unmentioned and therefore incontestable. (Think of the Constitution, which tacitly condoned slavery—“importation” of “persons”—without mentioning race.) The success of the civil-rights movement had the paradoxical effect of strengthening this pernicious tradition by making white pride taboo; white politicians had to rely on increasingly subtle forms of coded speech. Roediger is impressed and disturbed by President Reagan’s appeal to working-class white voters, which stemmed, he says, from a “sure command of divisive code words such as ‘state’s rights,’ ‘welfare moms,’ ‘quotas,’ and ‘reverse racism.’ “

The problem with a fixation on “code words” is that you can start to see them everywhere. At one point, Roediger analyzes the politics of America in the nineteen-seventies through the prism of “such racial ‘code words’ as crime, busing, welfare, and taxes.” Taxes! Is there any hotly debated political topic that couldn’t be considered, in some context, a code word? (Glenn Beck recently argued that “social justice” and “economic justice” are “Marxist code words”; it would be hard to prove that they aren’t or never have been.) And is there any way for a white politician to criticize a black President in front of a disproportionately white audience and be certain that he or she isn’t, however inadvertently, appealing to a sense of racial solidarity?

These are the questions that liberals have been asking of the Tea Party movement, a decentralized libertarian-influenced conservative movement that has cast its opposition to President Obama as an opposition to runaway government spending, runaway public debt, runaway taxation. (The movement’s unofficial motto turns “tea” into an acronym: Taxed Enough Already.) There have been race-related controversies. A white activist in Houston was photographed holding a sign that said, “Congress = Slave Owner. Taxpayer = Niggar”; he was swiftly disavowed by the Houston Tea Party Society (even though, strictly, he was calling himself a “niggar”). At the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, the former congressman Tom Tancredo voiced his regret that “we do not have a civics literacy test before people can vote in this country,” which reminded some commentators of the schemes that disenfranchised black voters during Reconstruction. (Tancredo declined to apologize, saying that he wanted only to combat “civic ignorance.”) And two African-American congressmen say that they heard someone shout a racial slur during the recent Capitol Hill rally against the health-care bill.

More often, though, the Tea Party movement has been relatively disciplined in its focus on spending and taxing. Conceivably, arguments about health-care reform have been advanced in bad faith, in the hope of stoking white racial resentment. But the other possibility is more unsettling: maybe health-care reform is merely one more topic on which Americans’ opinions correlate, however loosely, with race. Certainly it’s hard to assess the protests without also assessing the politics. Those aggrieved (mainly) white folks look a lot different if you think they’re speaking out against fiscal malpractice.

Because explicit formulations of white-identity politics are taboo, we have no non-pejorative way to talk about the disproportionate whiteness of the Tea Parties. (We don’t even have a good way to measure it. Keith Olbermann included “Hispanics” on the list of people he didn’t see represented in Tea Party crowds, but, really, how could he tell?) Supporters of the Tea Parties can’t decide whether they should refuse this identity, by highlighting black speakers and attendees, or defend it, by suggesting, as Beck did, that anti-white racism is a serious worry. In fact, Beck’s slippery concern with racism—outrage over false charges of anti-black racism, combined with outrage over anti-white racism—seems central to a certain kind of white-identity politics. This professedly anti-racist argument is about as close as anyone comes to articulating a mainstream political agenda that is explicitly pro-white.

In the Warner Bros. movie “The Blind Side,” Quinton Aaron plays Michael Oher, a black football prodigy who is adopted by Leigh Anne Tuohy, a white materfamilias, played by Sandra Bullock. Early on, Michael explains why his new surroundings feel so strange. “I look, and I see white everywhere,” he says. “White walls, white floors, and lots of white people.” They—the white people—are the film’s true subject; Michael remains a sweet but silent cipher. (The real Michael Oher is now a lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, and before the movie’s release he told the Baltimore Sun that he was “not in a hurry to see it.”) The Tuohys’ whiteness is expressed as a series of red-state signifiers: they are Republican and Christian and they live in Tennessee; Leigh Anne’s husband is played by the country star Tim McGraw. There is even a reference to anti-white racism: when the cute young son, known as S.J., complains that a “Chinese” kid was picked, instead of him, to play the Indian chief in the school play, he wonders whether “multicultural bias” might have been at work.

At times, the movie seems to be building toward the familiar moment when the whites atone for the past by confronting their unexamined racism, but that moment never arrives. Instead, a climactic scene has Leigh Anne facing off against a black thug from Michael’s old neighborhood. He insults her with a racial slur (the “s” word—“snowflake”), and threatens her family; she responds by threatening him right back. “You so much as cross into downtown, you will be sorry,” she says, adding that she knows the district attorney and belongs to the National Rifle Association. This kind of threat, a Southern white woman telling a black man to stay in his own neighborhood, has a long and dismal history, but Bullock delivers it with verve, and without a trace of self-consciousness. (No doubt the scene helped her win her Academy Award.) Leigh Anne is refreshing, because there’s no trace of anxiety in her white identity—for her, it’s neither something to live down nor something to live up to.

Is white identity shifting? Painter thinks so. She argues that “being white these days is not what it used to be,” partly because a number of nonwhites have joined the cultural and (more important) economic élite. But she concludes pessimistically, reminding readers that “poverty in a dark skin endures as the opposite of whiteness.” It might be more accurate to say that “poverty in a dark skin” is one of the opposites of whiteness, because, as Roediger’s book demonstrates, the white-identity project has often been conceived in populist terms, as a defense of scruffy local values against the wealthy alien élite. This form of white-identity politics, far from being undermined by the election of President Obama, was strengthened by it. Apparently, a black President born to a white mother can represent the opposite of whiteness, too.

A tension between élitism and anti-élitism is central to white identity, and always has been. The old race theorists couldn’t decide whether the spirit of whiteness was best reflected in the noble refinement of royalty or in the rude vitality of laborers and soldiers. Often, white identity has reflected both traditions at once, as with Emerson’s beloved Scandinavian kings, who conducted themselves like drunken brigands. The “white people” in Lander’s book are rich snobs who view themselves as rebels, resisting the culture of corporate greed in vague solidarity with the world’s poor. The “whitopians” in Benjamin’s book consider themselves “folksy” salt-of-the-earth types, no matter how much money they have accumulated. And “The Blind Side” is a perfect distillation of white identity as anti-élitist élitism: Leigh Anne’s husband owns nearly a hundred fast-food franchises; he’s white-collar, in a blue-collar kind of way.

Roediger and Painter are right to remind us that whiteness was built over centuries on a foundation of deceit and confusion and disguised political imperatives. But neither seems fully to grasp the ways in which this artificial category has, over the years, come haltingly to life. Yes, whiteness is a social construct, and not (as race scientists used to think) a biological essence—but then so, too, is every collective identity. It’s getting easier to talk about “white culture,” maybe even white politics, without knee-jerk sarcasm or, for that matter, knee-jerk sympathy. And it’s getting easier to imagine an American whiteness that is less exceptional, less dominant, less imperial, and more conspicuous, an ethnicity more like the others. In the Obama era—the Tea Party era—whiteness is easier to see than ever before, which means it’s less readily taken for granted. If invisibility is power, then whiteness is a little less powerful than it used to be.

Demographers predict that, sometime before the middle of this century, non-Hispanic white people will cease to be a majority in America. This doesn’t mean that there will be a white “minority”—whites will continue to be the country’s most populous racial group for the foreseeable future. It doesn’t mean that white is the new black—the two races have never been symmetrical, and never will be. And it doesn’t mean that whiteness is innocent of history—you can’t tell the story of whiteness (or, for that matter, blackness) without talking about racism. But, if the old race theory was brutally reductive, there is something reductive, too, about the idea that whiteness, for all its paradoxes, isn’t real. The history of human culture is the history of forgeries that become genuine, categories that people make and cannot simply unmake. So we should probably stop thinking of whiteness as an error, and start thinking of it, instead, as a work in progress. Historians have sometimes framed the treacherous history of whiteness as the slow death of an idea. Perhaps it’s time we start viewing it, instead, as the slow birth of a people.

White Plight?



In working-class America, an élite-resenting identity politics has emerged in which whiteness spells dispossession.

Within a couple of days, Counts’s photograph was everywhere, and inspired letters from around the country castigating the unidentified white girl. In “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America” (Viking), the historian Nancy Isenberg describes Bryan in this photograph as “the face of white trash,” a ready-made contrast to Eckford’s calmness and sense of purpose. In Isenberg’s telling, Bryan was the latest in a long line of poor whites who believed that black advancement would come at their expense. Bryan didn’t have much. But she wanted at least to maintain her status somewhere between the upper-crust white and largely disadvantaged black worlds. One of the defining features of living in a putatively classless democracy, as has often been observed, is a constant feeling of status anxiety. In the absence of a clearly delineated hierarchy, we determine where we belong by looking above, at those we resent, and below, at those we find contemptible.

By the early nineteen-sixties, Bryan had come to see the error of her ways. She looked up Eckford in the phone book and called her to apologize. The conversation was awkward and brief—maybe both women assumed this would be their last encounter. But Bryan continued her efforts to make amends, immersing herself in community work and learning about black history. She hoped for a chance to tell the story of her transformation, and to replace the image of the petulant, hateful teen-age Bryan with a mature, enlightened one. The opportunity to share this story with Eckford finally arrived in 1997, as part of a series of events commemorating the bravery of Eckford and other black students, who had collectively been dubbed the Little Rock Nine. Counts returned to Central High School to document the changes that had taken place during the previous forty years, and Bryan and Eckford agreed to reunite as part of a new photograph. It didn’t take very long for Bryan and Eckford to realize that they had a lot in common, and they became good friends. They participated in a local seminar on racial healing. They shopped for fabrics, gardened, and attended poetry readings together. They were inseparable.

Those who witnessed Bryan and Eckford’s reunion at first hand described it as authentic, uncannily beautiful. Such stories model behavior for us, conveying a sense of what remains possible. People can change: they can forgive, or let go of their anger; they can realize that they have been walking the world with blinders on, and turn their guilt into something positive. Counts’s new photograph was made into a poster titled “Reconciliation.”

Over time, however, Eckford grew tired of life as a symbol. She had misgivings about the “reconciliation” concept: after all, she had just been trying to go to school. By the time the journalist David Margolick sat down with the two women in 1999, Eckford had begun to withdraw from the friendship, wondering if it hadn’t merely been a one-sided exercise in unburdening. Bryan, for her part, thought that their friendship had been undone by Eckford’s unwillingness to move on from the past. It was a reminder that we don’t all experience history the same way. A few years ago, when Margolick interviewed the current principal of Central High School as part of a book he was writing on Bryan and Eckford’s legacy, she pointed to a copy of the “Reconciliation” poster hanging in her office. “I’d like a happy ending,” she told Margolick, “and we don’t have that.”

For many, the 2008 election of Barack Obama seemed as if it might be an “ending” of sorts. But of what? On a purely demographic level, Obama’s rise embodied an inevitable future: by 2055, the majority of Americans would be nonwhite. He had merely arrived ahead of schedule. Still, one election wouldn’t erase the structures and ideologies that had kept the country’s wealth in white hands. Maybe what was ending was a bit more abstract. There was, in Obama’s manner of carrying himself, something that upended traditional status relations. An early sign of this came while Obama was on the campaign trail. At a meeting with wealthy Democratic donors, he described the plight of the white working class in Midwestern small towns, where “the jobs have been gone now for twenty-five years and nothing’s replaced them,” and remarked, “It’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” This certainly wasn’t the first time an authority figure had spoken patronizingly of the white working class. But now the authority figure was black, and had spoken with the confidence that the future belonged to people like him.

Obama, in essence, had given poor and working-class white people the language to think of themselves as outsiders. After all, they weren’t the kind of people who would have been in the room with him that day. Within the more responsive spheres of media and entertainment, of course, Obama’s rise has helped us imagine how America will see itself once “white” and mainstream are no longer synonymous. One might point to cultural touchstones like Beyoncé, “Hamilton,” and “Scandal” as a preview of what this future will look like. In these somewhat rarefied realms, whiteness is, in ways big and small, constantly being treated as a problem, from this year’s #OscarsSoWhite outrage to calls to strip university buildings of the names of their more vexing white forefathers. Whiteness, among those with a title to it, is invoked only in a dance of disavowal.

Away from these predominantly liberal arenas, however, white identity has found a more potent form of salience. For poor and working-class whites, skin color no longer feels like an implicit guarantor of privilege. There is a sense that others, thanks to affirmative action or lax immigration policies, have nudged ahead of them on the ladder of social ascent. Their whiteness is, in fact, the very reason they suspect that they are under siege. Marginalized by a black President, as they imagine, and alienated by urbane élites of every hue, they have begun to understand themselves in terms of identity politics. It almost doesn’t matter whether their suspicions are true in a strictly material sense. The accident of white skin still brings with it economic and social advantages, but resentment is a powerful engine, particularly when the view from below feels unprecedented.

When Obama distilled this narrowing sliver of America to a common fondness for “guns and religion,” he was drawing on a long tradition of élites isolating poor and working-class white people as a containable threat. As Isenberg shows, anxieties about the white underclass have been at the heart of our history. Instead of revisiting the story of American inequality through slavery, she considers the problem of white poverty. Standard histories of the American spirit use a hardscrabble past to anticipate our glorious present, but Isenberg takes every opportunity to mottle that picture. The early colonists were not brave explorers but “waste people” who had been expelled from England. The Founding Fathers were not sturdy believers in the democratic ethos but élites adrift without a clear-cut hierarchy, who propped themselves up by disparaging the poor. America was not a shining city on the hill but a large-scale experiment in social engineering designed to contain and minimize the impact of the “degenerate breed.”

From the perspective of the British, Isenberg notes, the colonies were where the “surplus poor”—convicts, debtors, and the like—could go to make themselves useful. The vast majority of early American colonists lived out bleak existences. Travellers through the colonies were greeted by poor whites “with open sores visible on their bodies,” pallid complexions, malnourished and “missing limbs, noses, palates, and teeth.” For those charged with overseeing this “giant workhouse,” the question became how to extract as much as possible from a congenitally flawed people. More often than not, the solution was to keep the poor busy and laboring, lest the colonies become the “spawning ground of a degenerate breed of Americans.” As Isenberg explains, the subhuman status of slaves was different from that of “white trash,” since they had no choice but to work. In contrast, poor whites had supposedly chosen to be “shiftless,” suggesting the possibility of intraracial tensions that weren’t immediately defined by a proximity to blackness.

Isenberg reminds us that many of these chauvinisms were simply absorbed into the ethos of this new nation, expressed as a set of murky class prejudices. The declaration that all men were equal certainly didn’t mean that opportunities and economic mobility were equally dispersed. Full participation was never the assumed goal of democratic thinking, and the American republic wasn’t established to provide every citizen with a pathway to success. Rather, the animating impulse was inherited from the Colonial past: how to deal with the problem of the lazy, landless poor?

In the absence of a rigid class hierarchy, part of the answer was to isolate their kind within a series of epithets. Isenberg vividly details the disparaging names given to poor whites: “leet-men,” “lazy lubbers,” “clay-eaters,” “sandhillers,” “red neck,” “cracker,” and “hillbilly” are just a few. The language of condescension has changed in the past four hundred years, but the qualities that made poor whites a legible group held steady. They were idle, lazy, and dim-witted, cursed with the inferior “breeding” that once underwrote a Progressive interest in eugenicist population control.

Things began to change, at least at a symbolic level, once politicians in the early nineteenth century realized the potential of appealing to poor and working-class whites for their votes. Andrew Jackson, for example, ascended to the Presidency by embracing, rather than looking down on, “the common man.” As the twentieth century unfolded, a more inclusive version of white identity began to take shape, one in which working-class whites could share in the benefits of the New Deal, and participate in the rapidly expanding economy of postwar America. For all the condescension that upper- and middle-class whites felt toward their lowly brethren, they needed one another, and not just because of shared political and economic interests. They also balanced one another, as characters at opposite ends of the American dream. One was the lodestar, the aspiration achieved. The other was free to be the id—authentic and unbridled, capable of voicing sundry resentments and fears.

And today? There is certainly a kind of everyday snobbery toward what Isenberg calls “white trash” which has become routine and reflexive, a condescension that, for example, makes poor-white subcultures on reality television seem so exotic and fascinating. But does the fact that whiteness is no longer an unequivocal badge of privilege have any consequences for the systemic persistence of black disadvantage? These days, when we speak of white supremacy we are talking about more than hooded thugs terrorizing black America. It has become a rhetorical gesture used to link a universally deplored past with the structural advantages that white people continue to enjoy to this day, regardless of whether they harbor any feelings of racial animosity.

One of the ways in which white supremacy has sustained itself is by staying in the shadows and normalizing this structure of domination. Skepticism often awaits those who merely attempt to point out its existence, let alone to imagine solutions, such as when Rudolph Giuliani recently portrayed the Black Lives Matter movement as “inherently racist.” As the scholar Carol Anderson argues in “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide,” one result of this has been our tendency to characterize moments of racial crisis as expressions of solely black anger. Her book grew out of an op-ed she wrote for the Washington Post, in response to the events in Ferguson. The issue, she argued, was not just “black rage.” What we were seeing was the direct consequence of “white rage,” a rage that surfaced time and again in the face of black progress, eager to roll back those gains. “With so much attention focused on the flames, everyone had ignored the logs, the kindling,” she writes.

Anderson’s book is a breezy history of give-and-take, looking at how the advances of Reconstruction, school desegregation and busing, the civil-rights era, and Obama’s election were all targeted and slowly dismantled by whites wary of black advancement. A backlash is always waiting; the main difference over time is that expressions of racism tend to grow subtler, cloaked in softer language and innocuous-seeming legislation, allowing all who are not “sheet-wearing goons” to keep their heads in “a cloud of racial innocence.”

One way of thinking about how this works in practical terms is to turn to what’s been called our “democracy of manners,” in which voters are willing to acquiesce in a busted political system as long as it produces leaders who appear to be “no different from the rest of us.” Both Anderson and Isenberg discuss the postwar rise of political dog-whistling, coded appeals to specific constituencies. Being able to reach Southern whites without running afoul of any racial trip wires was critical to the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy throughout the seventies and eighties. By constantly making references to “law and order,” “giveaway programs,” or “states’ rights,” Republicans were able to key in on Southern-white hostilities toward a government they felt had overreached in order to uplift African-Americans. (Of course, both parties have indulged in such appeals.) In Anderson’s view, Obama’s election put new stress on our preëxisting racial frameworks, in that he represented “the ultimate advancement, and thus the ultimate affront.” Obama disrupted the way politics sounded, as well as the audiences his own coded messaging was intended to reach. The dog whistle began vibrating at mysterious frequencies.

A dramatic example of this occurred early in Obama’s first term, when the Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was arrested at his own home. The police had been summoned by a neighbor, who mistook Gates for a burglar, and when he loudly maintained that this was a case of racial profiling he was taken into custody for disorderly conduct. Obama sided with Gates and suggested that the officer, who was white, had “acted stupidly.” The comment drew controversy. To those who had recently felt victimized by Obama’s “guns and religion” remark, the President and his Harvard friend appeared far more privileged than the officer. The professor and the officer were eventually invited to the White House for a “beer summit” with Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden. It was an attempt to salvage a nasty situation that had spun out of control, and to underscore the lingering possibility of reconciliation, even without the prospect of a poster.

The anxieties prompted by a sense of white displacement are the subject of Robert P. Jones’s “The End of White Christian America,” which isn’t nearly as tetchy a book as the title suggests. Jones oversees the Public Religion Research Institute, a think tank devoted to examining the changing role of religion in American life, especially as it pertains to our shared “values.” Since the country’s founding, Jones says, “White Christian America” has provided believers and nonbelievers alike with a “shared aesthetic, a historical framework, and a moral vocabulary.” Even at its worst—and Jones’s is far from a triumphalist history—it offered a “coherent frame” for understanding the evolution of American public life. In this respect, “White Christian America” had constituted a visible mainstream, a set of aspirations, a shared touchstone for our “democracy of manners.” Solemn yet wonky, Jones’s book speculates about a future without a white Christian center.

Already, we’ve seen that, in the absence of a political system run by people “no different from the rest of us,” many working-class whites feel abandoned, realizing that the system has always thrived on inequality. One result was the Tea Party, which emerged in 2009. Another has been the rise of Donald Trump, who, though opposed by many Tea Party activists, has drawn on the same loose energies that sustained that movement. He has shown that “white rage” and the nostalgia that underwrites feelings of racial resentment are renewable resources, and a cross-applicable rationale for xenophobia. As whiteness becomes a badge of dispossession, earned or not, it’s likely that future elections will only grow more hostile, each one a referendum on our constantly shifting triangulations of identity and power.

Jones would prefer that we find a successor to white Christian America in a new crop of multicultural, multiethnic churches like Middle Collegiate Church, in Manhattan, and Oakhurst Baptist Church, near Atlanta. The flux surrounding white identity has also mobilized droves of young white people to begin understanding the set pieces of American prosperity as the product of privilege, and of systems that can be reshaped in more equitable ways. This was what was at stake when Bryan and Eckford reunited forty years later, a fantasy that two people seeing eye to eye might disrupt an entire social order. As their thwarted friendship suggests, however, history does not always yield to our desire for narrative closure.

White people interested in exploring this refashioned identity are realizing what people with a legibly minority presence long ago discovered: that these categories are more often than not placeholders, spaces evacuated of meaning, where the expectations that come with being told who you are rub up against the aspiration of figuring out what you might become. The question is whether whiteness, having arisen from a set of privileges accrued and institutionalized over centuries, can ever truly become a minority category, even if white people become a numerical minority. Whiteness was once described as invisible, a conspiracy that could never be brought into focus. But we can now at least contemplate the possibility that white might become a color like all the rest. This is what it would mean to enter into history, rather than simply bending it to your will.

How to Write About AFRICA


Binyavanga Wainaina

Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. The continent is full of deserts, jungles, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions romantic and evocative and unparticular.

Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat. Do not mention rice and beef and wheat; monkey-brain is an African’s cuisine of choice, along with goat, snake, worms and grubs and all manner of game meat. Make sure you show that you are able to eat such food without flinching, and describe how you learn to enjoy it—because you care.

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.

Throughout the book, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-muchtone. Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Africa, how you fell in love with the place and can’t live without her. Africa is the only continent you can love—take advantage of this. If you are a man, thrust yourself into her warm virgin forests. If you are a woman, treat Africa as a man who wears a bush jacket and disappears off into the sunset. Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important book, Africa is doomed.

Your African characters may include naked warriors, loyal servants, diviners and seers, ancient wise men living in hermitic splendour. Or corrupt politicians, inept polygamous travel-guides, and prostitutes you have slept with. The Loyal Servant always behaves like a seven-year-old and needs a firm hand; he is scared of snakes, good with children, and always involving you in his complex domestic dramas. The Ancient Wise Man always comes from a noble tribe (not the money-grubbing tribes like the Gikuyu, the Igbo or the Shona). He has rheumy eyes and is close to the Earth. The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. Or he is an Oxford-educated intellectual turned serial-killing politician in a Savile Row suit. He is a cannibal who likes Cristal champagne, and his mother is a rich witch-doctor who really runs the country.

Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West. Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty. She must look utterly helpless. She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment. Moans are good. She must never say anything about herself in the dialogue except to speak of her (unspeakable) suffering. Also be sure to include a warm and motherly woman who has a rolling laugh and who is concerned for your well-being. Just call her Mama. Her children are all delinquent. These characters should buzz around your main hero, making him look good. Your hero can teach them, bathe them, feed them; he carries lots of babies and has seen Death. Your hero is you (if reportage), or a beautiful, tragic international celebrity/aristocrat who now cares for animals (if fiction).

Bad Western characters may include children of Tory cabinet ministers, Afrikaners, employees of the World Bank. When talking about exploitation by foreigners mention the Chinese and Indian traders. Blame the West for Africa’s situation. But do not be too specific.

Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.

Describe, in detail, naked breasts (young, old, conservative, recently raped, big, small) or mutilated genitals, or enhanced genitals. Or any kind of genitals. And dead bodies. Or, better, naked dead bodies. And especially rotting naked dead bodies. Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘real Africa’, and you want that on your dust jacket. Do not feel queasy about this: you are trying to help them to get aid from the West. The biggest taboo in writing about Africa is to describe or show dead or suffering white people.

Animals, on the other hand, must be treated as well rounded, complex characters. They speak (or grunt while tossing their manes proudly) and have names, ambitions and desires. They also have family values: see how lions teach their children? Elephants are caring, and are good feminists or dignified patriarchs. So are gorillas. Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a gorilla. Elephants may attack people’s property, destroy their crops, and even kill them. Always take the side of the elephant. Big cats have public-school accents. Hyenas are fair game and have vaguely Middle Eastern accents. Any short Africans who live in the jungle or desert may be portrayed with good humour (unless they are in conflict with an elephant or chimpanzee or gorilla, in which case they are pure evil).

After celebrity activists and aid workers, conservationists are Africa’s most important people. Do not offend them. You need them to invite you to their 30,000-acre game ranch or ‘conservation area’, and this is the only way you will get to interview the celebrity activist. Often a book cover with a heroic-looking conservationist on it works magic for sales. Anybody white, tanned and wearing khaki who once had a pet antelope or a farm is a conservationist, one who is preserving Africa’s rich heritage. When interviewing him or her, do not ask how much funding they have; do not ask how much money they make off their game. Never ask how much they pay their employees.

Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky. Wide empty spaces and game are critical—Africa is the Land of Wide Empty Spaces. When writing about the plight of flora and fauna, make sure you mention that Africa is overpopulated. When your main character is in a desert or jungle living with indigenous peoples (anybody short) it is okay to mention that Africa has been severely depopulated by Aids and War (use caps).

You’ll also need a nightclub called Tropicana, where mercenaries, evil nouveau riche Africans and prostitutes and guerrillas and expats hang out.

Always end your book with Nelson Mandela saying something about rainbows or renaissances. Because you care.



stories from: Skin | Colour | Race | Caste – Made in India

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