In fact, it’s difficult to think of a US setting in which the words “white people” are received neutrally. The term is always charged somehow, freighted with meaning and potential conflict, vaguely subversive. White people. White people. White people.
…It must be alienating to feel like one is on probation in one’s own country, that one’s presence is subject to the approval of white people. And it must be a familiar feeling, especially these days, for everyone who is not white (and male).
It occurred to me that white people rarely if ever experience questions like this, about their very legitimacy. Do they belong? Is having more of them around good for America?
…So, as a bit of goofy provocation, I made just such a poll:
Do white people have a positive or negative effect on America?
— David Roberts (@drvox) July 24, 2018
…“Identity politics” — dragging around the baggage of one’s identity, constantly being forced to reckon with it, to work around the stereotypes and discrimination it attracts, to speak for it, to represent it — is something that is forced on other groups, not something they choose. Do you think a young black man likes walking into a store knowing he’s already carrying the weight of a million suspicions and expectations, that he has to behave perfectly lest he invoke them? He’d probably like to be thinking about tax policy too, if he didn’t have to worry about getting shot by the cops on his way home. But that worry comes with his identity.
…White men bridle at the notion of being part of a tribe or engaging in identity politics. …Alone among social groups, they are allowed the illusion that they have only their own bespoke identity, that they are pure freethinkers, citizens, unburdened and uninfluenced by collective baggage (unique and precious “snowflakes,” if you will).
No one else is allowed to think that — at least not for long, before they are reminded again that they are, in the eyes of their country, little more than their identity, their asterisk. No one else gets to pretend their politics are free of identity.
White people do. But simply saying the words “white people” is a direct attack on that illusion. It identifies, i.e., creates (or rather, exposes) an identity, a group with shared characteristics and interests. It raises questions (and doubts) about the group’s standing and power relative to other groups. It illuminates all that hidden baggage. Lots of white people really hate that.
…As many have pointed out and this political era has made painfully clear, to a dominant demographic, the loss of privilege feels like persecution. Being just one group among many feels like losing. After all, what good is being white in the US, especially among poor whites, if some third-generation Ugandan immigrant has just as much control over their fate as they have over hers? If a poll asks whether they’re any good for her, rather than the other way around?
For the dominant group, being judged and asked to justify itself, as so many subaltern groups are judged and asked to justify themselves, feels like an insult.