Whiteness Means Not Knowing How to See a White Mob as Terrorists

Photo by Ashley Gilbertson/VII for The New York Times

Whiteness encompasses a number of features of everyday life: it is a reference to the skin color of the people who belong to the group that we call white people, and it is a cultural context that corresponds to their historical and contemporary experiences. Finally, as James Baldwin explained, it is a metaphor for sociocultural power.¹

Paradoxically, whiteness derives dominance as a cultural context through its creation of itself as invisible (to white people, that is). This invisibility is achieved when white people equate their own experiences with normal everyday life on earth for everyone: There’s nothing to see here! Of course things are the way they are! Where else would the sun be rising except in the east?

We bring this automatic “of course” quality to our view of who is and who isn’t likely to be a bad actor in any given situation. Long story short, people of color frequently contend with a knee-jerk aura of suspicion merely by appearing in a space that white people expected to be white. Reports of white people’s panicked calls to 911 because they saw somebody Black chatting in a Starbucks or the like repeat themselves with regularity in the headlines.

The converse is also true, in that an aura of benignity and laissez faire is often visited upon white people even when they are plainly seen doing flagrantly bad things. For example, the mob of white people seen breaking into the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021 did not summon the word terrorist to the minds of many white people. After all, body paint and Viking horns aside, these white people have the general appearance of our family members and neighbors and of us — we who give ourselves license to be pretty much anywhere that we want to be.

As is well-known by now, these white people were videotaped innumerable times from every angle as they committed criminal actions. In many cases, they videotaped themselves. They broke doors and smashed windows. They destroyed government property and stole personal items. They defecated. They carried guns. They carried plastic restraint cuffs. People were injured and died. A police officer was injured and died.

If you are a white viewer of these scenes, observe how they settle into your mind. Many of us would certainly not endorse these behaviors; others of us might be inclined to extend a form of understanding that allows us to reframe them less harshly. Either way, it wouldn’t be surprising if you did not respond internally as you would have if a group of Muslim protestors had overwhelmed the police and broken into the US capitol building. (Notice how your mind just said, “I know, but they’re…..”)

Take an actual slow minute to imagine that scenario, and the picture is likely to look like a national emergency of a different order. If you heard that Arab activists had brought flex cuffs with them as they stormed the Senate chamber, that would sound like terrorism. If a U.S. government official of Arab decent had publicly encouraged this collective action, you might be very concerned about this person’s impact. If you read reports that Black demonstrators had broken down the doors of the Capitol bearing guns and Molotov cocktails, that would sound like terrorism, too. If you learned that some were simultaneously heard calling for the hanging of the vice president, that would sound extremely urgent and not like a situation in which to extend exculpatory understanding.

In other words, switch out the identities of all the white actors for a race, religion, or ethnicity that is frequently perceived, as Toni Morrison² described it, as other, and the interpretations of their actions veer suddenly in the direction of danger — which would be appropriate in this case. This white insurgency was dangerous and deadly, and its white perpetrators were domestic terrorists.

This thought experiment isn’t about catching someone being one of the bad white people. This is about allowing ourselves, in the privacy of our own minds, to reflect upon the workings of the white socialization that is sedimented within all of us who are white, regardless of our political affiliations or our sincere conscious stance toward race and racism.

Couldn’t it be theoretically possible that there is a white American who has miraculously avoided taking in even the least little bit of this socialization? Or who has miraculously purged every tiny trace of it from their being? Perhaps. Perhaps you are that miraculous person.

To all the rest of us who are not so miraculous, let’s not stop learning. Every day is a day to remind ourselves that the most harmful and resilient contemporary engine of racism is not represented by the antics of Q-Anon cultists but by the assumptions that lie within ordinary taken-for-granted whiteness. The confederate-flag-waving mob of insurrectionists most definitely needs to be shut down and held accountable, but the unexamined assumptions that chase the word terrorist away from white people are why, generation after generation, we still have racism in this country.

¹ James Baldwin, quotation from the film “I Am Not Your Negro” (2017)

² Morrison, T. (2017). The origins of other. Harvard University Press.