The POC ‘Whitelash’ Has Also Already Begun…
Tactical White Supremacy, Attention as Resource, and Performative ‘Whiteness’
I have seen a lot of articles about the ‘Whitelash’ (Van Jones’ term) which has happened in the wake of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murders, including one by Herbert Dyer on Medium. (https://medium.com/age-of-awareness/white-backlash-has-already-begun-660fea4d1224 ) ‘Whitelash,’ or white backlash, is the countering response to any forward movement by the black community (and, in some cases, others of color) which helps to maintain the homeostasis of white privilege and protect the institutionalization of white supremacy from any threat that may challenge it.
My personal example, however, is not about a white person’s response; it’s about a mixed-race, nonblack male who has been exhibiting the same ‘whitelash’ behaviors. Unfortunately, ‘whiteness’ is exhibited by all sorts of people, sometimes more intensely by POCs than people who identify as ‘white,’ and this issue needs to be addressed. ‘Whiteness’ behaviors are ones which uphold white supremacy, regardless of race or ethnicity.
For the purposes of this essay, I will focus on one specific tactic: the negotiation of ATTENTION as RESOURCE. ‘Attention’ is an abstract resource, unlike money or property, so some have difficulty understanding how it operates as a resource. Yet, a number of abstractions lead to the acquisition of actual physical/concrete resources, and for that reason, these abstractions should be discussed as methods of obtaining the same goal. This goal is ‘whitelash:’ that is, maintain our current status quo of white supremacy.
One example of the way in which ATTENTION works as RESOURCE is Gwen Ifill’s important work with missing and murdered females. Ifill, a journalist and newscaster, worked for public radio for many years. She introduced the ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’ concept, in which she described that our society — inclusive of investigating detectives and large-scale media, to name a few — focus significantly more attention on the plight of white women and, as a result, grant more resources to finding and rescuing white women.
Jessica Lynch, a white soldier who was captured along with one African-American woman and one Latinx woman for a period of time, stated as much on C-span: during her report on the incident, she stopped short at one point and asked the entire panel at C-span why so many were focused on her when she was with two WOCs in a similar situation. Ifill provided an answer for that: attention is a resource, the resource of attention eventually leads to concrete resources, and these resources — in a white supremacist society — are prioritized to white people. Thus, significantly more attention=resources go to white women. This example is the way in which our society performs white supremacy in the interest of prioritizing white bodies.
Recently, a mixed couple visited our house: Syrian-Chinese husband, white wife (this is how they identify). Given the social milieu, the topics of protests, Black Lives Matter, and police brutality came up. Almost as quickly, this man offered an opinion: he agreed that police brutality is a big problem, but he wondered why so much attention is being paid to black people when there are so many white victims of police violence, especially women. He brought up Justine Damond, an unfortunate white woman who was murdered by a black police officer about 3 years ago. This sad — but rare — event ended in a quick murder conviction, by the way, for the black officer (a topic for a different essay).
As my relative spoke, his wife nodded silently. When I brought up the fact that a much higher PROPORTION of black people are murdered like this, the next response was that ‘she was so innocent.’ His wife piped up and offered that ‘she was probably poor, which is a big problem, right? It’s not just race.’ Once again, then, we see that ATTENTION is being used as resource, and in this case channel-shifting to issues of class is being used to distract from the discussion of BLM, police brutality, and BLACK bodies. All of this is a form of re-centering whiteness so that its import is maintained.
In my opinion, pulling the narrative back to white people is just that: a form of homeostasis which has as its ultimate goal to maintain the power of whiteness. These are basic ‘white lives matter’ statements which draw an equivalence between the murders of white people and black people by police officers. By drawing this equivalence, my relative and his wife erase the history and subconscious psychology which is at the very root of these behaviors, thus denying that white supremacy is part and parcel of these behaviors. Without addressing the root cause, the problem cannot be solved.
This stance, in turn, reorients ATTENTION to white people where IT HAS ALWAYS BEEN.
Why is it so difficult for people of all races to give attention to black people who have been deprived of it for so long? Why this constant ‘whitelash’ by not only white people but also a range of POC-’White’ actors?
Here is an article which explores the way in which this sort of ‘innocent’ framing disarms others from commenting appropriately on the ‘whitelash’ aspect: https://medium.com/@Cullinyan/youre-not-being-censored-why-is-blm-perceived-as-an-attack-on-white-hegemony-c5bf753165ac . In this article, Cullinan shows that, in order to counteract criticism from BLM supporters, a strong tactic is to present ‘innocence’ as the central discussion point. This tactic makes it much more difficult to address the issue of whitelash directly, because the person offering the criticism will be perceived as attacking an innocent.
In other words, in order to respond to my relatives directly, I will risk appearing as if I am criticizing an innocent person. This tactic is disarming, literally: it takes any hard-earned attention to these neglected facts about black people and essentially gags any response through the presentation of color blindness in the context of ‘innocence.’ It is a highly manipulative tactical maneuver; at best, it is the color-blind racism that continues to buttress white supremacy.
In fact, the manipulative behavior is coming from an embrace of ‘whiteness;’ that is, black people are getting attention; that takes attention away from white people (where it belongs), thus, the response will be to pull that attention back to white people because ATTENTION leads to actual concrete RESOURCE. Therefore, this essential ‘white lives matter’ sentiment — which essentially expresses that white people should maintain power — is expressed in more covert fashion.
A friend sent me another example of this from Twitter, in which a mixed-race black-white male attempts the same ‘white lives matter’ sort of whitelash by pulling ATTENTION to white women. Keep in mind that this man’s writing is endorsed by Richard Spencer, an avowed white supremacist who thinks all people of color should be stripped of their rights and simply serve white people, if they want to stay in the ‘white’ country, America.
Note that his assertion that these ‘are half’ of all incidents warps the data: by percentage, a much higher number of black men are murdered, and it is in this percentage number that we understand a DISPARITY exists. Absolute numbers distort this data because they erase the very real phenomenon of black people being DISPROPORTIONATELY MURDERED. Also, there is the now-tired ‘let’s channel-shift to class’ excuse. I cannot comment on the experience of black men or black people in general, but this man’s statements smack of the same denial I hear in my own (POC) relative’s voice.
Here is Mr. Chatterton-Williams’ nod from Richard Spencer:
Attention-hogging is a form of white supremacy. White people have gotten the bulk of attention — which leads to concrete resource distribution in their direction — for centuries. It is tragic that Ms. Damond or any other white person is inappropriately shot by police, and it indicates deep-seated problems with our system of policing. But I find it shocking that these men of color — even if there are only two on the entire planet, and I suspect there are more — find it so easy to channel-shift and protect ‘whiteness’ when the discussion is about the disproportionate murders of black people by police officers.
This is ‘whitelash’ performed by nonwhite peoples. We should take responsibility for this as nonwhite peoples. My relative has a long history of being subjected to racism and ethnocentrism due to being both Chinese and Syrian, yet he has no qualms reversing the forward movement which has taken place in the last few weeks — -ATTENTION, finally, to the DISPROPORTIONATE numbers of black men and women who are subjected to this — through these statements, which are color-blind at best. It is time for ALL peoples to reject performative ‘whiteness’ in all its incarnations.
I hope I do not open my own POC relative’s Twitter feed and find that he is endorsed by Richard Spencer, or any other white supremacist for that matter. For that reason, he should think before he speaks.