Thinking with Coates, again

For those of us who are (considered) white (because for a long time the Jew, e.g., was an Other), the past year or more has been one of a slow awakening not to the inherent systemic injustices of the United States (because anyone who studies or has studied our nation knows these exist) but to the phenomenology of non-whiteness in America. Key to this has been the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the latest installement is his letter to his son, about which I have thoughts (almost all positive, and largely unsaid--those of you who have read my previous writings about his work have somes ense of where I come from. 

Now, I think it is important to note that, however good I think the letter is, for me at least 'whiteness' is not a category with which I identify--I am not, as Coates writes, one of those who "believe themselves to be white" in any meaningful way. As an unmarked category, 'whiteness' to me is just the normal state of being, and I equate not thinking about the color of my skin at all with the normal lived experience of being human. But yet the past year or more has shown those of us who do not have to think in terms of race that there is in fact a radically different phenomenological world out there in which many of our fellow citizens live, and in that world race plays a role that to me is unimaginable. 

And this is where I want to not push back against Coates but to complicate, because much of the developing discourse around the phenomenology of race in this country seems to suggest that for whites, broadly defined, whiteness is an important phenomenological category. I can't speak for anyone other than myself, obviously, but I don't think it is. Granted, part of the privilege of being an unmarked category is to not have to think about these things, and I do know to some extent what it is like to be part of a marked category (See above, re: Jew), but still--for me, at least, and I believe most of the white people I know, we do not wake up thinking about domination or the exercise of power. No part of me wants to destroy black bodies--or any bodies for that matter. No part of me thinks to myself how I can continue propping up a half millennium of North American white supremacy, a supremacy established long before my ancestors even knew there was any world outside of their varied shtetlekh. I just sort of go about my daily life and am nice to the people I meet and try as best as I can to treat them all as people and, to be completely honest about my phenomenology, race generally comes out pretty low on the list of factors that influence my interactions with them. 

So the largely unformed question that I want to raise, unformed not through lack of effort but because no brief formulation of captures the needed nuance nor the proper tone, is What should we do? I am a progressive. I support progressive policies that I believe make our nation more just. I am generous, in this context not about material goods, but about spirit--I try to have phenomenological sympathy for people, to the extent that I can, and remember that they are on life journeys that I know nothing about. But concretely, what should I do? Is it my duty to abandon the life, dreams, career that I have, a life and dreams and a career almost certainly made easier by my whiteness but not dependent on it, and spend my life moving from fight to fight for social justice? Maybe it is. I don't know. I hope that it is not because I really like studying ancient history and I think it is important but I also want to be moral.

Coates writes to his son, "I would like to tell you that such a day approaches when the people who believe themselves to be white, renounce this demon religion, and began to think of themselves as human. But I can see no real promise of such a day." But what about those of us who do see ourselves as human, who want no part of the demon religion of destroying bodies, who just want to live responsibly and live life? What should we do? How should we live differently?

© Henry Gruber 2013