“So we’ve got a black in the family,” her father concluded with bemusement. He had just finished describing how someone on his side of the family had married and had a child with a Black man. He also has “a Black friend” whose existence is invoked whenever he needs to prove (to himself) that he isn’t racist. He talks down to and belittles this Black friend, a tall and gentle man who does not perform the kind of masculinity that threatens white men like her father. The Black friends of white racists can’t act Black because blackness threatens whiteness, but white people using their sole Black friend as fodder to prove that they aren’t racist is a distinctly white thing to do.
To say that there is “a black” instead of “a black person” in the family betrays the speaker’s prejudice, for the former utterance uses black as a noun that strips the Black person of their humanity by defining them solely in terms of blackness, whereas the latter uses black as an adjective that describes a person and thus maintains the Black person’s humanity by acknowledging that blackness is only one aspect of their personhood. Blackness is the only thing people like her father see in Black people, however, which is why Black lives must be proclaimed to matter.
Her father uses this same rhetoric when describing “gays,” “transgenders,” and anyone else whose lives don’t matter to him.
Pure Individuality Does Not Exist
Individualism is the view that people are autonomous actors whose behaviors and achievements are due solely to their own efforts. Individualistic conceptions of personhood frame people as separate from their environment, whereas collectivistic views frame people in relation to their environments. Neither view is fully true or false but rather different ways of looking at the same phenomenon: the human being.
Consider how someone who climbed a mountain might say that they “conquered the mountain.” Such a phrase implies that the speaker perceives themselves to be not just separate from but more powerful than the mountain, having “conquered” it by traversing its slopes. Another way to look at the act of climbing a mountain is to consider that one reached union with the mountain by adapting to its slopes. There is no competition in this latter framing, only unity between person and environment in relation to one another.
“I came into this world,” is another phrase that positions the speaker as someone who is separate from their environment. Think about this, though: if “I” “came into” this world, then it means I existed prior to my birth and then was inserted into the world like clipart in a powerpoint. One could just as well say “I came out of this world,” to describe their birth, “as leaves from a tree,” like Alan Watts says in The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. “As the ocean ‘waves’, the universe ‘peoples’,” Watts concludes. A single wave is an expression of the entire ocean just as individual people are an expression of the entire universe. Infinity attempts to express itself through human holes, but only some humans realize their connection to the infinite, while many others feel assuredly finite. White people in particular are those most likely to frame themselves and others are finite individuals who are separate from their environments, which I understand as the seat of many white (mis)behaviors.
I think collectivistic framings of personhood are much more accurate in describing the metaphysical reality of human personhood, and that individualistic framings of personhood undergird the problematics of whiteness.
Individualism is the fallacious premise upon which the command to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” depends, even though such a feat is physically impossible and would involve violating a few laws of physics. Pure individuality is similarly impossible in that everything (identity, truth, meaning, purpose, etc.) exists in relation to other things. Many white people are far away from this metaphysical reality, however, and instead act like waves that deny their connection to the rest of the ocean.
Consider, for example, how every definition of a word is made of other words, each of which has their own definitions that are comprised of additional words that have their own definitions made of more words, ad infinitum. A full, truly comprehensive definition of any individual word is an infinite regress into other words and definitions, which indicates that all words take on meaning in reference to other words, and no definition stands alone. A non-relational definition doesn’t make sense because it would somehow need to be comprised of self-evident symbols that don’t refer to anything but themselves… but this is impossible, because symbols necessarily stand for other things. Ignore this epistemological/semiotic illustration if it is more confusing than enlightening; the point here is that pure individuality does not exist because individualistic conceptions of personhood are at-odds with the systems of relationship that comprise the human being.
Despite the fact that pure individuality is a myth, white people are nevertheless those who frequently appeal to individual rights, freedoms, and liberties to justify their own problematic behaviors. We are, after all, those who triumphantly Declared our Independence to birth the United States. We can see white individualism very clearly now as white Americans refuse to publically wear face masks during a global pandemic that has currently taken over 300,000 lives and will continue to take more. According to a self-identified redneck in my family, face masks actually make people more sick by trapping bacteria in the mask and poisoning wearers with carbon dioxide. This is objectively false, for if it were true then doctors would die on a regular basis even when there isn’t a pandemic going on… but this nevertheless remains subjectively true to this family member and others like him because the real scandal about wearing a face mask during a pandemic is that it signifies an acknowledgment of relationship to others, which contrasts with the pure individualism upon which whiteness depends. Wearing a face mask during a pandemic communicates a commitment to others people’s health and well-being and a willingness to sacrifice individual comfort for the greater good, but history shows that most white people don’t give a shit about anyone but themselves. Many white people balk at the notion of wearing a face mask because it challenges their individualism and subsequent belief that everyone is solely responsible for themselves.
White Individualism and Privilege
White individualism informs the reasons why many white people cannot understand white privilege, for the concept of privilege forces one to consider that social systems aid their betterment at the expense of others instead of purely individual efforts. White supremacy intersects white individualism in ways that make it even harder for white people to understand white privilege, because acknowledging privilege not only challenges white individualism, but also white superiority — which, as I have written elsewhere, doesn’t actually exist but is felt to exist because of repeated acts of domination.
White people have the privilege of feeling separate from their environments and able to defy the laws of physics by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps because perceptions of individualism are an effect of dominant group membership. According to Barbara Rogoff, a psychologist who centers the role culture plays in human development, part of what it means for a group to be dominant is that the cultural practices of that group are taken for granted as norms through their institutionalization. This is why dominant group members tend to not notice that they behave in patterned ways just as much as any other social group, or that they have any cultural practices to begin with. Dominant group membership is thus a primary socio-psychological reason why white people tend to not be able to see whiteness, as well as why white people typically feel entitled to doing whatever they want even if it means putting others’ lives in danger. White people don’t easily understand how their behaviors impact others because dominant group membership creates the illusion of pure individualism that is fundamental to white ways of being-in-the-world.
I once participated in a team-building exercise that involved bringing in and discussing objects that represent one’s culture. I was fascinated by a white cisheterosexual colleague who expressed that she had difficulty thinking about her own culture, and had brought in a collection of receipts to signify her cultural practice of purchasing things — an emblem of white financial privilege and individualism. I — also white but neither cisgender nor heterosexual — brought in an artifact from my affiliation with queer nightlife, but would have had a difficult time knowing what to bring were I not queer.
There is no greater remedy to false presumptions of pure individuality than confronting the reality of structural oppression, for structural oppression forces the recognition of forces beyond individual control that are designed to exploit, punish, and exterminate anyone who isn’t cisheterosexually white. This is part of why marginalized groups are often discussed in terms of communities (e.g., “the Black community,” “the gay community,” etc.) while dominant (i.e., privileged, individualized) groups are not (e.g., “the white community,” “the straight community,” etc.).
Cisheterosexual folks probably don’t know what it’s like to be harassed for holding the hand of a loved one in public or consciously transgressing a gender norm, and instead get to bask in the privilege of being able to exist authentically without being punished for it. Whiteness intersecting cisheterosexuality refers to folks (i.e., straight, white, and cisgender people) who are likely to be highly individualistic because they are not the targets and in fact benefit tremendously from the racist and cisheterosexist social structures that harm Black and queer people on a regular basis. They’re also probably those who will readily claim exemption from participation in oppression by appealing to their Black and/or queer friends while simultaneously allowing their comrades to make racist jokes and call people gay as an insult.
White Individualism and Ad Hominem Attacks
It is through individualistic perceptions of self/other that white racists justify their own goodness and the homogenized badness of the Other. White individualism is also why ad hominem attacks (i.e., attacks toward the person) are so effective in reaching white ears. Ad hominems are not a rhetorically valid way to argue, but they are nevertheless effective because white people think in individualistic terms and therefore interpret criticisms as decontextualized personal attacks instead of commentary about the sociocultural contexts that inform white behaviors. (See white responses to my “Reexamining the White Man’s Burden” piece for some examples of this phenomenon.)
Have you noticed how effortlessly Donald Trump spins criticisms into personal attacks? This also goes the other direction — think about all the ad hominem attacks Trump uses to malign his opponents: “Crazy Bernie,” “Crooked Hilary,” “Pocahontas,” etc. The fact that these attacks resonate with his flying monkeys is a reflection of how individualism is a core component of whiteness, for many white people see themselves and others are pure individuals whose fates are their own doing, and so by targeting others they are able to continue feeling superior by putting others down. Ad hominem attacks resonate with many white people because they care about personal excellence at the expense of collective accountability. This is, once again, because individualism structures the problematics of whiteness.
White Individualism and History
Ignoring the full scope of white history is another way individualism structures the problematics of whiteness. The version of US history that is taught in public schools focuses on the heroic efforts of individual white men who created this allegedly (or, formerly?) great country on their own. We typically don’t learn about minstrel shows or eugenics in public school, and nor do we learn that white America oppressed Black people for longer than the US has officially been a country, or that the Hitler was inspired by white America. A truer, fuller account of white history should be a history of cruelty that traces back hundreds of years, most likely to the advent of capitalism.
Many white people don’t want to take an honest look at their own histories because they don’t think it matters; white privilege in this case is being able to claim exemption from historical patterns of oppressive behaviors through appeals to individual excellence. “I’m not like those white people,” someone might say. “I’m different.” Or: “Just because my ancestors owned slaves doesn’t mean I’m racist.” These kinds of statements ignore the influence of history on the present moment, and especially the influence of psychological histories of thinking only about oneself at the expense of others. It is only white people who are able to feel justified in ignoring the influence of history in deference to individualism.
Internalizing the impact of neglectful child rearing practices also likely contributes to white individualism, for leaving young children alone with babysitters and in cribs is a common practice in white American families that contrasts with families in other cultures whose parents are more likely to spend more time with and sleep in the same room as their young children. There are many ways to ignore the influence of history, and in the case of white people this applies to both US history on a broad scale and personal histories within families that probably didn’t feel safe or comfortable but were nevertheless experienced as such.
Surrendering Individualism for Collective Accountability
If you’ve read this far and are white, then I venture you might be feeling like a bad person for being white, and are perhaps ready to reply with a tirade about how I’m wrong to have spoke in such general terms about white people. A response like this, much like the responses to my “Reexamining the White Man’s Burden” essay, proves and performs my point, which is that we white people are so used to feeling like superior individuals that we can’t even entertain the thought that we might be related to some serious social problems.
I encourage all white readers to pause, reflect, and consider how individualism informs the way they experience themselves and others. What would it mean to reframe your identity in relational terms? How much of how you behave is in reaction or relation to others? What if your identity is a stylized reaction to encounters with others who you have been led to believe are fundamentally different from you?
We are a human species currently trying to survive a pandemic. We must band together in order to get through this, but many of us are not because of how seriously we take our individualized egos. Feeling connected to strangers is in my opinion one of the most beautiful experiences we can have during our time on this earth. Life is way too short to dedicate to ego maintenance. Realize that the individual ego, as Alan Watts also says, is as real as the equator: just as the equator is a concept that should not be mistaken for a line that is painted around the circumference of the earth, so too should the individual ego be understood as a concept and not mistaken for an actual thing that exists. White liberation is not about destroying our individualized egos; it’s about realizing that they don’t actually exist to begin with.