The Burdens of Whiteness: Revolt and the American Psyche

“The more manifest the oppression, the greater the oppressor’s psychic need to justify his actions. The more he debases the subject race, the more guilty he feels, the more he must justify himself [by further entrenching and so proving his superiority], and so it continues. How can he emerge from this increasingly explosive circle except by rupture and explosion? The colonial situation, by its own internal inevitability, brings on revolt. One cannot adjust to the colonial condition: like an iron collar, it can only be broken.” — Albert Memmi

Like Memmi, Frantz Fanon, too, points to the fact that colonial powers in the last century had to be forced to surrender their empires through revolt. If the resistance to the persistent racial hierarchies in our country rehearses elements of the decolonization of Asia and Africa, our evolution may involve a more forceful assertion of rights. How unlawful or violent can or must this “revolt” be if it is to provoke this shift toward a “post-racial” society? What kind of steps can Americans take to free themselves from the “iron collar” of racial subjugation or, conversely, feelings of entitlement haunted by unconscious guilt and illegitimacy?

Frantz Fanon

Two points bear mentioning here:

First, Memmi and Fanon’s justification of revolt — extraordinarily influential in Africa and Asia in the 1960s — may seem repugnant to those who value deference to the law and the rejection of violence. But the dichotomy between “law-abiding” and “violent” protest or resistance is a false one. Civil disobedience often takes unlawful forms — from violating curfew to unlawful assembly, from withholding taxes to general strikes — that do not necessarily mark or require acts of physical violence.

Further complicating programs of non-violent resistance, states for various reasons attempt to force pacific dissent to a violent crisis by making the conditions of such dissent increasingly unlawful, thus initiating a violent cycle of police repression and dissenters’ resistance: witness the widespread imposition of time limits on recent demonstrations against police brutality and the state-sanctioned violence erupting against protestors breaking curfews in the U.S. after the murder of George Floyd.

Even so, it remains clear that resistance leaders, in their conceptualization and articulation of a movement of revolt, can fully embrace the language of peaceful protest even where violence ensues due to state provocation or external actors. At this moment in American history, the use of non-violent language may be a strategic imperative if the racialist hierarchy is to be successfully challenged, even as and especially if one defends constitutional and universal rights to assemble, speak, protest, strike, and disobey or resist unjust legal institutions or laws.

Second (and this will, by its very nature, make for uncomfortable reading), any such revolt must target not a consciously adopted and easily detachable set of prejudicial attitudes and behaviors on the part of certain actors, but a core “psychic” element that defines every American. The investment in racialized “whiteness” that Memmi describes remains foundational to everyone’s subjectivity, scripting entitlement for whites and long-suffering “patience” and “self-control” for non-whites.

The Amy Cooper incident in Central Park staged the workings of this entitlement-patience dynamic perfectly: but reactions to the video of this woman’s phone call to the police quickly framed her “whiteness” as only a reversible “attitude” of privilege underwriting readily changeable “behaviors.” Many white women took comfort that they would have acted differently.

To understand the formative power of “whiteness” — its association with leadership, heroism, self-confidence, self-consciousness, and emotional complexity — and the extent to which associated superiority and inferiority complexes mark the American psyche, one must fully grasp how “whiteness” functions through a vast representational regime in American politics, civil society, and the media.

Even the Democratic party, a particularly diverse and national organ of political power, remains in thrall to a mythology of white male authority. The diverse members of this professedly multi-racial party elect as their representatives a massively disproportionate number of white men: despite the fact that the latter constitute some 20% of the party’s electorate, they are approximately 45% of the party’s elected leaders in the House and 85% of its elected leaders in the Senate.

The analysis here points to a few possible paths forward. Liberal institutions like the Democratic party are well-placed to radically change the image of power in America. Given that 80% of its electorate consists of women and minorities, the Democratic party can and should aim to represent its electorate proportionately. Whites and men in the party should work actively to achieve proper representation of minorities and women. Corporations, who have by and large done an admirable job of representing America’s diversity in product commercials, must also do so at the executive level (shamefully, only 3% of executive positions in Fortune 500 companies are held by blacks — a number that has not changed in 40 years). White men represent some 30% of our population; unless we genuinely consider members of this group superior, they should occupy a similar percentage of the posts of power in our society. Hollywood, a particularly virulent contributor to our racialist pathologies, must stop centering the majority of its films, sitcoms, etc. on white male heroes, white male fantasies of sleeping with “exotic” women, white saviors, . Those of us interested in fighting racialism can exert far more pressure on our political party, civil society, and the media to modulate white representation and loosen the hold of representational “whiteness” in America.

The “entitlement” and “self-control” scripted for all Americans by the persistent representational regimes of whiteness constitute symptoms of the much more pathological set of associated neuroses Memmi and Fanon detail: whites, they painstakingly demonstrate, suffer from a superiority complex with respect to status, beauty, and power haunted by uneasy feelings of insecurity, illegitimacy, and guilt. A corollary inferiority complex infects the psyche of darker-skinned people, evident in the sensitivity of so many to signs of prejudice. (In all these respects, Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks remains essential reading for Americans.)

No single step will free us from the “iron collar” of race. What the current crisis makes clear, however, is just how much all Americans, including whites, need movements like Black Lives Matter to help liberate us from the ideals and attending psychic burdens of whiteness.


Hassanaly Ladha is Associate Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Connecticut.

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