Learning to be Not Quite White (Part I of III)

I have something different, and very personal, to share with you all. This three-part essay was written using a philosophical approach called phenomenology, which involves describing, in everyday language, the phenomena of your experience. I hope you find it as enriching as I have.

– KS

In The Racial Contract, Charles W. Mills develops a critique of ideology in which he shows white supremacy, as a system of domination, to be the dialectical truth of the ideal “social contract” theorized by Locke, Kant, Rousseau, and other Western thinkers in the Enlightenment tradition.

Central to Mills’s theory of the Racial Contract is the white/nonwhite binary: Whites function as an elite class, who have the right to use violence to defend their privileges. No possible division within the category of nonwhite, Mills argues, approaches the radical nature of the white/nonwhite split. It’s the split upon which Europeans founded their global political/economic hegemony.

But the fact remains that there’s a (often ambiguous) spectrum of nonwhiteness, just as there is a spectrum of whiteness. Instead of a three- or four-way division of society, which obscures the basic opposition of white/nonwhite, Mills proposes to “fuzzify” the categories, so that both are always unstable and historically contingent. “[T]he fuzzy status of inferior whites is accommodated by the category of ‘off-white’ rather than nonwhite.” In the United States, the paradigmatic examples are the Irish and Italian communities who only assimilated into full whiteness after World War II.

My parents were born in Iran, and lived there for the first two decades of their lives. That makes me a first generation Iranian American, and it means I find myself just on the other side of whiteness, in a category of nonwhiteness I call “Not Quite White”. I think the ambiguity of this category has the potential to reveal something fundamental about the experience of difference, and I want to try to describe it, drawing primarily on my own memories and analysis.

I do so in part because I recognize that—consciously or not—I have over and over again suppressed my feeling of difference by disavowing part of my identity, what white people usually call my “ethnicity”. The Racial Contract, after all, is understood not only by the parties to it (whites), but also by those excluded from it (nonwhites): From an early age, although I didn’t think in the language of race, I was nonetheless aware that the price of difference was exclusion.

Today, the vast majority of my friends, peers, and acquaintances are (still) white Euro-Americans, which—I’ve only recently concluded—is not unrelated to my categorical aversion to anything I associate with the “Persian” expatriate community in the United States. My academic work has, to date, mostly revolved around German and Scandinavian philosophy and cinema (doesn’t get much whiter than that).

Though my activism and my political writing were initially borne of the prospect of war between the country of my birth and the country of my “ethnicity”, I rarely write about Iran (say, about the brutality of US-led sanctions), and often the most “Iranian” I feel is in my Palestinian solidarity work. As I’d like to develop here for the first time, my desire and efforts to suppress my nonwhiteness have never been wholly conscious—and never wholly unjustified.

In my experience as a child (before I learned the language of race), we can see most clearly the basic tension at the core of white supremacy: More so than any actual difference between people, what the system needs to function is difference itself, that splitting which empowers a privileged group at the expense of everyone else.

To an extent, all children (and the adults they become) experience anxiety about “not fitting in”. But those with the most to fear fall into two rough categories: 1) Those who seem to fit neatly in the privileged group (“the cool kids”), and 2) those who enjoy some of those privileges just as long as they “pass” as members of the privileged group.

In practice, what these groups share is that they have an incentive to downplay or deny whatever aspect of their subjectivity they fear may “out” them, expose them as a fraud, not really one of the cool kids after all. In my earliest memories of this anxiety, I attributed my parents’ opposition to so-called junk food, sleepovers, video games, all television except PBS, etc. to insufficient Americanness (my father claims I once speculated that American fathers must take their kids to McDonald’s all the time).

By the end of elementary school, however, I had learned to talk about the world in “black” and “white”. Consciously, I wasn’t concerned about my inability to say whether I was white or black, but I most likely understood, in some sense, that I was neither of these.

More importantly, I acted (and still do) under the strong impression that I can, through my behavior, exert control over other people’s perceptions of me. What I understood of the Racial Contract—again, not explicitly, but intuitively—was that “fitting in” meant minimizing any appearance of deviation from what I imagined to be the culture and experience shared by ordinary (white) America—on pain of social exclusion by those whose acceptance seemed to mean everything.

I now know this phenomenon as a form of self-hatred, violence I inflicted on myself, under the perceived threat of a greater violence (that of undesirability and ostracism) if I should fail. When this effort succeeds, on the other hand, it’s called “passing”: According to the logic of “passing”, it’s not enough for difference to remain below the surface. “Passing” is above all a process in which I tried to convince myself that I was “white enough”.

Particularly since the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001—the date on which people of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent became even less white than before—I have held some version of the belief that racism against Iranians/Middle Easterners/Muslims affects me differently than it affects others.

When called upon (by myself) to justify this belief (to myself), my first response is to point out that, living in New York City, I don’t feel subjected to the discriminatory policing of Muslim communities that has flourished in the post-9/11 United States (and nowhere more so than New York City). If I practiced Islam, if my friends and social circles were predominantly Muslim, then perhaps I’d be justified in claiming victimhood. But this is conjecture on my part, based less on the well-documented racism of the New York Police Department than on an implicit assumption that this particular white privilege is even mine to lose—faster than you could say, “Allah-o-Akbar”.

Another response I typically come up with is that there’s racism, and then there’s racism that I’ve personally been subjected to. Like most people, I’m well acquainted with US media representations of Iranians (and everyone else from “that part of the world”). With few exceptions, they hurt me deeply. The choice might appear to be between seeing every narrative through the eyes of a white lead character, or else constantly identifying oneself as marginalized, demonized, and (most often) totally ignored, absent without a trace.

But this choice is no choice at all: In reality, the nonwhite subject occupies both of these positions, not just at the movies, but in relation to any narrative running through the “mainstream” of white supremacist culture.

But I also seem to live in a world of mostly young mostly white mostly liberal people, and their racism is as unconscious as my own investment in whiteness. It’s as simple as an offhand remark about my bringing “a little ethnicity” to the team, or suggesting that I go to the Twin Peaks-themed party as Hawk (the Native American police officer is one of only two nonwhite characters in the entire series).

I tend to see in these occasional microaggressions only the best of intentions. This isn’t to say that good intentions absolve white people of responsibility, but rather, that I have a sizeable investment in inclusion among the very people whose subtle racism I’m most likely to let slide without incident.

But however much I’ve told myself otherwise, this same community of young white liberals has shown me a much uglier side. In the fall of my sophomore year at the University of Illinois (in Champaign-Urbana, my hometown), I was enamored with a young white woman from a suburb of Chicago. She was around my age, and seemed to like me too. In the end, she informed me that it would be impossible for us to date, because “my parents are racist”. She then began listing off the racist things her family and relatives have said and done (including a delightful airport game called “Spot the Terrorist”).

I was astonished; if her family’s racism isn’t the real reason, why in the world would she use racism as an excuse? In any event, it seems likely her family is in fact quite racist—and it sounds like a safe bet that she is too. After a while, we saw each other around, at parties, at shows. There was something charged and unsettling about even the briefest encounter after that. And while the incident caused tension between this young woman and our mutual friends, I never brought it up again.

Mills’s critique of ideology subjects the idealism of Western philosophy to a materialist analysis, illustrating how the formal equality of all people promised by liberal political theory has an important caveat: Not everyone is a person. So far, I’ve sketched the beginnings of a critique of my own ideology, which is probably not just mine. I have demystified some of my long-standing beliefs and practices, showing that my actual lived experience casts doubt on a great deal of what I tell myself about my experience of difference.

At the same time, I’ve shown how these inconsistencies, these gaps in ideology, can be ignored and explained away in part due to the unconscious way in which ideology structures our experience and memory of reality. The very subjective acts and inclinations I attribute to my personality, my will and self-determination, are always also their opposite: my reflex, my interpellation into a system of domination called white supremacy. It’s this theme that I want to continue to explore here in the coming weeks.


5 thoughts on “Learning to be Not Quite White (Part I of III)

  1. Nice setup here, Kumi. Being a member of youngwhiteliberalAmerica, I tend to downplay the experiences of those who occupy the racial margins. The flawed logic is that since their racial identity is ambiguous (i.e.: ‘ “Not Quite White” but white enough’), then therefore their experience must not deviate from mine by all that much. Thanks for the reminder.

    Also, if phenomenology is something you’re into, check out Nabokov’s memoir “Speak, Memory” for an amazing document of what is possible when the phenomenon of experience and memory is recalled, reconstructed, refracted, and reflected upon by a writer in his present state.

    • Thanks Philliam – I hope you find the next couple installments similarly engaging.

      My classes have never brought me into contact with Nabokov, but since I’ve just earned myself an unprecedented stretch of free time (before some committees decide my fate), I’ll make Speak, Memory my first!

  2. Pingback: Learning to be Not Quite White (Part II of III) | The Red Fury

  3. Pingback: Learning to be Not Quite White (Part III of III) | The Red Fury

  4. Pingback: “Blade Runner” deconstructed whiteness and masculinity before it was cool | The Red Fury

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