I've been avoiding speaking about Trump and Clinton, primarily because I feel hopeless when I read and watch election news. My stubborn heart drifts into fantasies of a first-ever, write-in win by the likes of Michelle Obama or Elizabeth Warren. This is idle escapism, but I did go so far as to google "write-in candidates," and I zeroed in on Dick Gregory's 1968 campaign.
This reminded me of when I was living in St. Louis, in the late 1990s, researching history about Dred Scott. My husband and I attended a discussion led by Dick Gregory at a local independent bookstore. Gregory bluntly asked the mostly white audience: what is "whiteness"? I remember that I couldn't do it, couldn't articulate it—no one satisfactorily expressed what whiteness is—but the question has been indelibly imprinted on my thinking about race since that night at Left Bank Books.
A recent article from the New York Times, originally published in the Interpreter, by Amanda Taub and Max Fisher, comes as close as anything I've ever read to answering that question:
Whiteness means being part of the group whose appearance, traditions, religion, and even food are the default norm. It's being a person who, by unspoken rules, was long entitled as part of "us" instead of "them" (emphasis mine).by Taub and Fisher
Simply put: as a white person in America, I am not "other" in terms of race.
The article chiefly explores concepts of whiteness that are playing out globally in national politics. America is not alone in experiencing a rise of right-wing nationalism and so-called populist ideology. Another Times article cites right-wing and far-right ideologies growing in Austria, Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Switzerland, and a good many more.
The Taub-Fisher report offers a cogent hypothesis for this current swing of the pendulum, examining "white identity" issues and how that plays out in political arenas, where national and racial identities are frequently conflated. All of the angst and outrage about "losing our nation" and "wanting it back" boil down to this consideration. Quoting Eric Kaufmann, a professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London:
What does it mean to be part of this nation? Is it not "our" nation anymore, "our" meaning the ethnic majority? These kinds of questions are really front and center, even though they're not necessarily verbalized.Eric Kaufmann
Breaking down the concept of identity into "achieved" (by personal effort) and "ascribed" (based on innate characteristics), the authors make a strong case that the weakening of "achieved identity" is leading to a strengthening of "ascribed identity." As economic opportunities shrink, those who are struggling and see their children's prospects waning—those who cannot feel pride in their personal achievements—are more likely ". . . to get more self-esteem out of a communal identity such as ethnicity or the nation than you would out of any sort of achieved identity." (Kaufmann)
Describing the quest of the American Dream as waiting in a long line ascending a hill, the authors state:
Focusing on lost identities rather than lost livelihoods helps answer one of the most puzzling questions about the link between economic stress and the rise of nationalist politics: why it is flowing from the middle and working classes, and not the very poor.by Taub and Fisher
And here they make a crucial distinction:
The mantra [I want my country back] is not all about bigotry. Rather, being part of a culture designed around people's own community and customs is a constant background hum of reassurance, of belonging (emphasis mine). The loss of that comforting hum has accelerated a phenomenon that Robin DiAngelo, a lecturer and author, calls "white fragility"—the stress white people feel when they confront the knowledge that they are neither special nor the default; that whiteness is just a race like any other. Fragility leads to feelings of insecurity, defensiveness, even threat. And it can trigger a backlash against those who are perceived as outsiders.by Taub and Fisher
[T]he struggle for white identity is not just a political problem; it is about the "deep story" of feeling stuck while others move forward.
And for "others," read non-whites.
Earlier this year at a book-signing event, a woman in the audience asked me if I thought Republican opposition to President Obama was based on racial prejudice. I said I believed in large part it was. If I had considered the issues of identity posed by Taub and Fisher, I might have added:
Yes, but also consider this factor: many whites, consciously or not, are motivated by wanting to belong. Yet they've never questioned or understood that their sense of belonging has been built upon racial inequality. They've never paused to explore how they can achieve that sense of belonging without putting others down.
This is what we all can strive for: establishing or restoring the sense that we all belong. It doesn't have to be us vs. them.
So this is what I have to say about the elections: our next president (who is sure to be white) must explicitly represent all of America, just as President Obama did: he didn't just represent and lead blacks. Our president must communicate and demonstrate, leading by personal example, that we all belong.