The Pain of Being White

by zunguzungu

I thought this might be a piece of the intro to my dissertation, but eventually realized it was just a piece of writing I’d needed to write before I could get on to the actual stuff. But I post it here because, you know, why not.

In 1910, in his essay “The Souls of White Folk,” W.E.B. Dubois argued that the “new religion of whiteness on the shores of our time” was a fundamentally modern phenomena. “In a sudden emotional conversion,” as he put it, “the world…has discovered that it is white…those in whose minds paleness of their bodily skins is fraught with tremendous and eternal significance” have “become painfully conscious of their whiteness.

What “world” did he mean? After all, he didn’t mean the globe or the sum of all human beings but something more like the “Europe” or the “West” which intuitively understands itself as The World, the some of the world’s peoples who imagine their history to constitute the entirety of History. It is this sense of “Europe,” for example, which Dipesh Chakrabarty seeks to “provincialize” in Provincializing Europe, the intuitive and usually only half-articulated notion that while “human beings” might live in a variety of places and life-ways across the globe, “The Human” is defined by reference to specific historical narratives centered on Europe, a broadly construed “Western enlightenment” tradition and a Modernity that means “Europe after the Industrial Revolution.”

Which is why DuBois’ claim to the newness of “white” interests me. After all, equating “Europe” with the entirety of human history was actually not new in Dubois’ time: regardless of when Europe’s “enlightenment” or “renaissance” is supposed to have happened, Europeans had taken an essentially provincial vision of “humanity” for granted for a long time before that. Europe had long become accustomed to make up the entirety of the world, had long equated the history of the European world as more or less simultaneous with History. They did this because the rest of the world was not properly Historical in a Hegelian sense, or because they just didn’t know anything about it. But the distinction is moot: they didn’t have to choose because they could pretend the rest of the world had nothing to do with them and safely ignore it.

This only decisively changed by the end of the 19th century. As the European world’s political dominance of the rest of the world became increasingly formal, Europeans found they could no longer be so blithely ignorant about the places they ruled. India in 1858 is a nice demonstration: while company rule had only been a few administrative layers removed from British government, the fiction had long been that India was still, in some important way, external to Britain. But in 1858, company rule ended and Queen Victoria became Empress of India because the “Sepoy Mutiny” had convinced the British that they needed to get serious: if they left things in the hands of the company, and sort of looked the other way, things could get ugly again. So they got serious about colonizing.

Or think about Africa before the scramble, where European interference had been sending seismic waves of social disorder (and order) reverberating through the continent for centuries: only after the 1880’s did Africa get officially divided up among European powers. Before then, “Africa” was about as foreign to Europe as it could be, not part of the world at all. (As Hegel puts it, “In this largest part of Africa no real history can take place. There are only accidents, or surprises that follow one after another”). Europe was not foreign to Africa, of course; Africans had been figuring out and adapting to Western incursions for decades and centuries. But the scramble for Africa is when Europe finally decided it needed to get serious about ruling the dark continent, needed to finally get its shit together.

In this sense, however old a habit it was to think of Europe as the entirety of the world — acquired in Europe’s provincial disregard for and disinterest in places like African and Asia — formal rule over those places brought with it an administrative imperative to know something about them. And as Europeans sought to expand out over the world, to know it and to rule it, they “discovered” not the all humans were the same — not all Europeans under their skin — but, instead, the reverse, that other humans were not quite, you know, human. It was, after all, only in the 19th century that “cultural relativism” and theories of racial heterogeneity starting thinking of humanity as essentially plural; polygenesis was invented in this period, not before it, and it makes perfect sense that it would be: how else was one to argue that one group of people deserved democracy, human rights, and education while another were better suited to labor and toil?

In other words, Europeans’ discovery that they were “white,” in an ironic way, was precisely what made it impossible to regard the whole of human history as a unity defined by its bourgeois European ideal-type, a provincializing of history that happened long before Chakrabarty came along.[1] To use a classic example, William Shakespeare could set his plays in vastly different times and places without worrying over much about the anachronism of doing so — and “Shakespeare,” in turn, can be taken to represent the core truths of The Human — to the extent that humanity’s essential unity can be taken for granted. If you imagine that all humanity is basically the same, the question of whether or not clocks were extant in republican Rome is as irrelevant as the consideration that Caliban’s speech should perhaps not so perfectly match that of his European slave-master.

That would change. In the mid-19th century, at the latest, “Europe” was vigorously provincializing itself, re-imagining the community to which “Europe” belonged as “white” instead of “human” and seeking ways to define the essential truth of particular human beings not according to that which all had in common but that which all did not. One could describe the moment in which “ethnography” and “anthropology” parted company in many different ways, of course, and the multiplicity of this essentially plural “moment” might be its central attribute: questioning the essential unity of humanity produced a variety of very different theoretical answers. But what they all had in common was the assertion that History was actually histories, that rather than an unstoppable incorporative force, “Europe” (or, as it came to be called, “white”) was simply one history of many.

DuBois’ sentence needs to be placed in this emergence of race-thinking and cultural relativism; doing so helps clarify the extent to which the very concepts he is using to describe the emergence of race thinking (and the challenge it poses to his own universalist humanism) are being torn apart by the shifting conceptual foundations beneath them (in many ways, necessitating the increasingly ironic tone he adopted at this moment in his life). The manner in which “the world” is changing is, in essence, an argument over what the term itself signifies: “the world” which once considered itself universally representative of “Universal Man” has, in discovering itself to be white, discovered itself not to be “the world” at all, but only a particular fraction of it. But this also makes me want to read a lot into DuBois’ description of the way whites become “painfully conscious of their whiteness.” That pain makes a lot more sense if we place it in context of a great loss: the realization that “white” people were neither a numerical majority nor a necessary consequence of historical teleology was a painful loss of universality that, for many, would never stop smarting. And it makes a lot more sense why such people would begin to hate, rather than simply have contempt for, people who were not white: such people represented — indeed, embodied — the very reality of that loss.


[1] I’m stealing this point from Lake and Reynolds Drawing the Global Color Line.