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Decoding/Recoding Whiteness: The Contemporary Moment, Some Theory, Some Autobiography

Last month I watched the film “I Am Not Your Negro”[1] and I dialed in as James Baldwin asked what it is about white people that their identity should need to be based on the construction of the inferiority of black people. He said this was work that white people needed to do. So I am taking up that question. To decode/recode whiteness.

Before going further, I want to say that this blog post is just that: a blog post and not an essay nor a poetics. It is partial; it is toward something. I wondered if I should go ahead and take up whiteness if I couldn’t be really measured and comprehensive in my writing; but I decided to use this space anyway, knowing that the presence of an audience will up the ante for me and hopefully lead to some new thoughts, new language. And while this post doesn’t comment on current U.S. American or world events where hatred, racial injustice, and systemic violence has been laid bare, I want to say that these times are terrible and therefore maybe excellent for this work—work never done alone but in concert with other activist, contemplative, critical, and creative practices. 
 
Perhaps I can do this work now because I live at a distance from the U.S.A. I am experiencing a season of calm and long-awaited economic security, though I don’t know how long it will last. Still, I think the time is right—perhaps because of distance—to listen closely to Baldwin and others and take up the call.

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A couple years ago I published a poem entitled “Overcoding Class, Version 2.”[2] I wanted to record attempts by others to establish recognition with me, yet their attempts often actually revealed a class divide. These instances were not direct, like saying “my shoes cost $500.” Rather, I noticed unspoken assumptions about time, dress, ideas of authenticity, liberty, and what constitutes the political.

For Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, within capitalism, “overcoding” is a kind of conceptual formation that establishes unity, finalization, a deterritorialization of an idea or action.[3] For example, the statement “home ownership is good” reveals an overcoded concept. The “goodness” of home ownership does not need a context, though of course pathways toward this are not at all universal. This is classic capitalism and its schizophrenia. As “overcodes,” certain concepts thwart diverse ways of being. An overcoded concept also heightens the anxiety of inequality by detaching it from its cause, placing the dis-ease on an individual body instead of an assemblage of policy, power, concept.

Disclaimer: I may have used “overcoding” incorrectly in my poem! Probably Deleuze and Guattari wouldn’t mind, but I think it’s a “mistake” that is useful to explore here. Maybe I was actually “decoding and recoding class”—perhaps class is so overcoded that it’s beyond recognition.

I begin this post by thinking about my work on class in order to think about decoding and recoding whiteness. To decode in order to make what’s overcoded visible; to recode in order to establish whiteness as various and analytically generative.

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It is excellent news that Claudia Rankine’s Racial Imaginary Institute launched its first online issue this September. The issue’s theme is “Whiteness,” and I’ll just touch on some of what’s there with the hope that readers will explore on their own.

In a Guardian article about the Institute, Rankine points out that whiteness is so “centralized,” and this means that we may be afraid to give it attention.[4] Still, she argues that whiteness is a key component of the work that needs to be done. Rankine refers to an unexamined idea of whiteness as “bloc-whiteness.” This is very useful language; it helps define the task at hand, and I’m grateful for it. 

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I study and teach black texts, literary theory, and epistemologies that are unsettling to the colonial, imperial, Western-world hegemonies. This is fortifying to me as a person, artist, and teacher.

Deconstructing bloc-whiteness also means studying how texts written by people of color might not fulfill political expectations, or should not only be instrumentalized toward political aims. When black lives and texts come out from under the regime of teaching racial justice only—as important as that task is—we have the chance to see exciting poetics at work. Vital are investigations of subjectivity, being in relation, and language—and their attendant texts—all flags of inquiry and encounter that can’t easily be flown for the cause of social change only.

On this point, I read Simone White’s essay “Fold Crease Wrinkle” from the whiteness issue with keen interest. White chooses the fold “as an alternative to the image of blackness as a sound, an archive of sound.” Here I am thinking of Evie Shockley’s work on problematizing “the speakerly” as the central theoretical modality of black texts in Renegade Poetics. [5] Making generative theory in concert with thinkers like Fred Moten, Jared Sexton, others, White writes: “The human condition that defies enclosure, yet requires togetherness, and is ‘against the rules’ Moten suggests, is discoverable, naturally, only in metaphysical/‘mystical’ ‘rehearsal’ (here comes the music), another word for practice.” Here is another generative moment: “The rehearsal of which Fred Moten speaks is always going to find its highest expression beyond the explanatory capacity of the fundamentally juridical system of opposition and antagonism that ‘the color line,’ or, being to one side or another of the opposition that is the color line, implies.” This seems to me to be an incredibly rich poetics.

As a textile thinker and maker I respond excitedly to the fold. I am also remembering the concept of “sack thought,” articulated by Michel Serres and rearticulated by Pennina Barnett.[6] That if there is a logic of boxes—nearly preformed containers that we might rearrange in traditional argumentation—there is also the logic of the sack. A sack is never the same shape twice. Or the sack fits around what it contains. There is also collapse, portability. Sack thought: as volumetric or as flat as needed. I’m remembering a Palestinian Jordanian student in one of my classes who wrote an essay on how sack thought was a good way to conceptualize “being Palestinian now.”

And if we take up White’s call to consider a model of “expression beyond the explanatory capacity of the fundamentally juridical system” then I think of “felt” as a fabric of the “beyond”: felt, made through proximity, agitation, the edges of fibers adhering to other edges. Not made by weaving, characterized by the grid, weft intersecting warp, where warp is the already given, the half-surface awaiting the weft. Felt—“smooth space” in Deleuzian parlance—may be a good way to think of whiteness and blackness in proximity and adherence: not white thought or black thought as the ground against or upon which thought and text contrasts—neither as pre-formed warp awaiting weft.

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I am also interested in studying and teaching the whiteness in texts: its aesthetics and approaches to narrative. I’m thinking of Aldon Lynn Neilsen’s work in editing Reading Race. [7] And I’m thinking of approaches to reading Gertrude Stein—locating her whiteness—something I wrote about in an essay published in The Racial Imaginary. [8]

It seems that a white writer has a wide spectrum of choices: to claim an absence of authorship—“I made this text through chance operations and what’s important is that you can’t find a ‘me’ in the text”—as well as to forefront their authorship—“my experience matters and can be taken as universal, or at least important to many.” This ability to choose literary approach as one pleases, without justification or a complicated poetics, might be a central characteristic of writing white.

Here I want to briefly touch on the work of my colleague Toral Gajarawala, whose considerations of politics and aesthetics move us around the globe. In Untouchable Fictions: Literary Realism and the Crisis of Caste, she begins: “In Dalit literature, everything is metanarrative. Born from the self-consciousness of any literature of radical protest, Dalit (untouchable caste) literature, engendered by caste oppression and caste consciousness, occasions a self-reflexivity that works at several levels: language and metaphor, political philosophy, and literary production.”[9]

I hope that other writers—especially those interested in “documentary poetry” and those who would define “experimental” as a gesture of formal innovation only—tune in to this full notion of self-reflexivity. For the subject who is already politicized before they arrive at writing—by virtue of caste, color, context—there is likely no escape from the metanarrative they engage by picking up a pen and making literature.

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Because “there is no theory without autobiography”—did Artaud write that?—I am asking what life stories inform my thinking about race and my racialized being in the world. How might articulations of this kind help decode/recode whiteness? Let’s see.

I went to a parochial high school in rural northwest New Jersey where most of the students came as boarding students—from churches in the New York metropolitan area. We were a racially diverse and mixed school. The administration of the school was oppressive, and our quest was to bend or break the rules without getting caught. Together we made theorizations about how illegitimate “legitimate” power actually was. My fellow students of color occupied as many positions of leadership as the white students. There was a lot of friendship and love across color lines.

My friends and I played tennis during lunch when the weather was nice. This is not what you might imagine: a posh boarding school tennis team. The court was old, grass grew through its cracks, and we didn’t even change out of our school clothes. We were: a daughter of Swedish immigrants by way of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn; me, daughter of an Estonian refugee and a white ethnic mother from the Bronx; a boy from Yugoslavia; two boys from the Philippines who grew up in Irvington, New Jersey; a girl born in Jamaica and a girl born in Barbados—both grew up in Paterson, New Jersey; an African-American boy from Queens; a girl from Puerto Rico who grew up in northeast Jersey. I look back and see our teenage selves falling in and out of love, trying on clothing and speech styles influenced by new wave and hip-hop, Boy George and Run DMC.

This co-existence didn’t mean that color was forgotten and we thought we were all the same. I vividly remember the day when I had a flash of awareness: that my life would probably be better because I was white and this was unfair. A racially integrated social life facilitated this awareness.

I was sixteen years old, working in the school business office alongside another student, a friend. We went to school for half a day and worked to pay off our tuition during the other half of the day. My friend was black. One day I thought this about skin color and my life versus her life: “I may have an easier life.” I didn’t think that this would mean I should treat my friend differently, feel sorry for her, do special things for her. I didn’t think that her life was necessarily going to be terrible and mine would be automatically great. There would be struggles she would have that I would never know firsthand, and I imagined that those struggles might be sharp and occasional and also slight and frequent. I could see that this was unfair. Arbitrary treatment began to fall into place along color lines in my mind. Race revealed its illogical logic. Because I knew she was a really good worker—more conscientious than me—and she was smart and got good grades. She sang beautifully in the choir and she had a great laugh. I loved joking around with her at work. She dressed well.

What led up to this seemingly sudden thought? It’s not easy to remember, and I would be guessing. But it might have been an increasing awareness of a beauty standard that tipped toward whiteness. Or it may have been the pattern, at school, of more kids of color dropping out, going back to public school because they didn’t have the money to pay.

I never talked to her about any of this. I recall having a sense that nothing I would say to her would fix the possible truth of what I was thinking. I imagined that someday I might advocate for her, but I wasn’t sure how that might unfold.

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My mother once asked me, “don’t you have any white friends?” There was aggression in her voice, and she didn’t expect me to answer. Perhaps her comment was a nod to my “iconoclasm”—I was known for this in my family. It was a confusing non-question question, because I did have white friends and was pretty sure she knew that. So I saw how important skin color was for her and how it could bend reality, or at least bend rhetoric toward confusing mistruths.

Some families from our church—we lived in a very white corner of New Jersey—began sending their kids away to another religious school in the south that was “preppy” and mostly white. I had a hunch that they wanted their kids to be around more white kids.

When I look closer, I see that my mother’s question “do you have any white friends?” establishes the nearness of our family to the families who sent their kids away. I had thought “we are not like them,” but I can see that class—my parents not having the money to make this choice—may have been the only factor that enabled her comment and disabled white flight in our case.

What also occurs to me is the possible silence around race in those families who could afford to buy segregated lives for their kids. Maybe they sent their kids off to school so that they would never have to ask that question that my mom asked. Perhaps money kept race talk and anxieties at bay.

I think this difference in whiteness needs articulation: that poor and working class white folks—maybe even the middle class—may use language to make meaning about race more often than moneyed folks. And perhaps their doing so allows for more articulations of disagreement, more interventions. In other words, I heard my mother but I did not heed my mother. I had the opportunity to analyze her comment and flex a muscle of resistance because she made an articulation.

When segregation falls on class and race lines, what is the discourse of race? If talking about race is absent, then are interventions and interruptions also an absent or an infrequent texture?

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My mother was not monolithic in her race views and anxieties. She always allowed me to invite my friends home and made them feel totally welcome. She enjoyed those dinners; she enjoyed my friends. She tutored kids of color at our high school and came home from those sessions telling us about the photos of tagged trains her tutees would show her. She was proud of them and what she called such colorful artworks. 

So there is a lot of complexity to unpack in her statements, and to also trace their impact on me. It might be typical of whiteness that its construction is recursive and its ideological assertions are inconsistent. 

I also notice that I rarely asked follow-up questions in response to her. That leads me to believe that schools and other institutions have a great opportunity to help kids get information and think things through. My social life at school was an antidote to some of the race talk happening at home. I think it may be true that black children often receive the counter-education to what they are taught in school. What about white kids? If home and school reinforce racial logic based on white dominance, then its frighteningly complete. 

College also helped me learn history and put my race education in context. Therefore, I want to always advocate for intellectual freedom, affordable tuition, access to higher education—higher ed with a healthy, secure, and decently paid faculty. Just years ago I saw how my own contingent status in higher ed made me vulnerable to resentments along various lines, including race. In the thick of my struggle, I had to note and untangle what surprised me as white entitlement welling up inside of me. I had to actively remember, mostly through studying economics, that the environment of scarcity was unjust and it didnt have to be this way.

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When I was in elementary school my mother told me that as a girl, walking down certain streets, some kids of color called her “whitey” and told her “get off our street.” Some things about the story didn’t make sense and I wondered: how many times did this happen? Once? More? I was trying to figure something out:

We lived in a big house—though my parents could barely afford to heat it at times. We bought clothes almost whenever we wanted—though we were instructed to never buy anything at full price. We went on vacations almost every year—though my parents always asked to stay, for free, at friends’ vacation houses. On balance it seemed my mom’s life was fine.

My parents once took us to my mother’s childhood neighborhood. This was in the early 70s, we got into the station wagon, and drove an hour down the highway to the South Bronx. The destruction seemed other-worldly. From the car window I looked at the people—nearly all brown and black—and at the buildings and shells of buildings, and I thought, “life worked out alright for my mother but maybe not for them—why?” I was coming to the possibility of the race-class matrix as partial answer.

As my dad drove us up and down those streets, my parents didn’t say things like “these people made this neighborhood this way.” They also didn’t tell me about white flight, absentee landlordism, the redrawing of school districts along color and income lines. They were silent and I didn’t ask any questions. Perhaps the silence let me own my questions and, later, do the studying I needed to figure it out.

Then there was a sense of “return” I felt when, as a young adult, I got a job in the South Bronx teaching writing and reading to adults. I came up out of the subway and walked to school without ever expecting to feel like I belonged, and my sensitized visitor-worker status[10] became part of the project of how to do this literacy work: learning that for many of my students who grew up there, life was not only struggle against systemic racism and poverty—life had turned out alright for many of them, too. As they wrote poems and stories, short op-eds, and letters back in forth in what we called “dialogue journals,” and as we made a library of homemade books, a body of literature, I became keyed into the joy of the classroom.

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Once, a friend asked me about my father’s first name—“where is he from?”—and when my friends said “I like your father’s accent,” I was confused: I had never heard his accent. I learned how difference gets marked by crossing over from the domestic into community. Community doesn’t always greet with loving arms—but it wasn’t overt hostility, in my case. Rather, I encountered the energy of needing to explain, which I imagined some of my friends had to metabolize also.

I remember that my father befriended the one man in a wheelchair from church, the black Jamaican family who also went to our church, the Isreali man with whom he worked, the Hungarian refugee who walked into our church one weekend. All of these people were invited over to our house for dinner on the weekends. My father would sit in the living room, talking with them for hours, and I noticed how much he enjoyed their company. I noticed that he felt comfortable around them—this, in contrast with a memory of my father sharply criticizing a kind of boisterous U.S. American family friend who had taken to calling my father, loudly, and with laughter “Tarmu from Tartu, Tarmu from Tartu” over and over. My dad grinned, almost grimaced, tensely around this man.

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In response to philanthropic endeavors to “make lives better” for poor kids and inner city kids—for example, free cello or ballet lessons, or chess clubs and so on—I wonder: are there trainings in wealthy communities about how to give up wealth, or redistribute it, or how to not need more than you need? I’m not trying to be funny, but I think The Onion would do a good job writing that fake article and maybe they have. This raises a point about privilege that Aimé Césaire makes in Discourse on Colonialism: that an unjust system distorts everyone—the oppressed and the oppressor.[11] I wonder, what would programs of moral betterment look like for the privileged?

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I finish this post by returning to the Racial Imaginary Institute’s whiteness issue and Krystal Languell’s relentless poem, “Punishment Meted Out.”

The poem enacts autobiography, and it also asks whether or not to tell. The tradition to keep information “in house” in the name of privacy reinforces silence. This domestic code can stymie theorization. Still, Languell writes a persistent, transgressive speaker and some language is very direct: “I used to ride in the Escalade with my aunt’s ex-husband/he took me to a property he bought in Myrtle Beach” and “I liked his money and I wanted him to like me” and “money never not dirty.” Class comes forward in this work.

The poem catalogues broken-off relationships with statements of fact like “my grandmother: no contact for five years.” Is this characteristic of the white poor or working class family? Or white families in general? It is a picture that I’m not used to seeing in poetry, but that I know to be true in life. How does this culture of withdrawal and negation—Languell’s poem ends with a repeated “No”—ripple out politically, socially? Or is the flow also inward: economic precarity pressing into the domestic? Are there patterns of “punishment” within certain families, communities? If we become practiced in “othering” inside our families, is negation more easily extended to those of “visible difference” outside the family? This poem pulls me into questions I have never articulated before.

Languell’s poem reminds me of Robin D. G. Kelley’s articulation in Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional! . . .[12] That in response to the traditional historiography of the black family—a picture of a broken family, criminality, moral decay—Kelley posits that we should look toward the white family for information on fear, neurosis, societal ill, disease. He is asking, what life ways are cultivated there? It is something to study, he suggests.

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I’ll sign off with some expressions of hope. I am heartened by the variety of works in the whiteness issue. However, I hope that the academic economy, career ambitions, and overspecialization mixed with privilege based on color won’t overtake the task, leading back around, again, to a certain kind of “bloc-whiteness.” While writing this, I kept thinking about Erica Hunt’s line in Arcade: “Race talk erases race.”[13] How to read that line as a truth but not necessarily as an instruction to leave whiteness unexamined? What possible textures, images, poetics exist and can be made? As the Racial Imaginary Institute’s site states: “We hope that these materials provide a platform for conversation, organization, and new work.” Yes.

 

 


[1] 2016 film by Raoul Peck.

[2] “Overcoding Class, Version 2.” Columbia Poetry Review, April 2013.

[3] Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

[5] Shockley, Evie. Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry. University of Iowa Press, 2011.

[6] Barnett, Pennina. “Folds, Fragments, Surfaces: Towards a Poetics of Cloth.” The Textile Reader. Jessica Hemmings, Ed. Berg: London, 2012.

[7] Nielsen, Aldon Lynn, Ed. Reading Race in American Poetry: “An Area of Act.” University of Illinois Press, 2000.

[8] Magi, Jill. “Racing Stein: Taking a hero out for a reread.” The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind. Claudia Rankine, Max King Cap, & Beth Loffreda, eds. Fence Books, 2015.

[9] Gajarawala, Toral Jatin. Untouchable Fictions: Literary Realism and the Crisis of Caste. Fordham University Press, 2013.

[10] This language comes, in part, from Lisa Samuels' articulation of the "trickiness of being transplanted and remaining, from some points of view, perpetually in the sensitized newcomer position" with regard to "transculturalisms" written about and from in A Transpacific Poetics, co-edited by Lisa Samuels and Sawako Nakayasu and published by Litmus Press in 2017.
 

[11] Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. Joan Pinkham, Trans. Monthly Review Press, 2000.

[12] Kelley, Robin D. G. Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America. Beacon Press, 1998.

[13] Hunt, Erica and Alison Saar. Arcade. Kelsey Street Press, 1996.

Originally Published: October 9th, 2017

Jill Magi is a writer, artist, critic, and educator working in text, image, and textile. She is the author of Threads (Futurepoem, 2007), Torchwood (Shearsman, 2008), SLOT (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011), Cadastral Map (Shearsman, 2011), LABOR (Nightboat, 2014), SIGN CLIMACTERIC (Hostile Books, 2017), and a scholarly monograph on textimage hybridity:...