Invitations to Whiteness

The following is an unpublished response to being asked to write a short, biographical description of my experiences with racism in the academy.

You know how I knew from the beginning that I could not support Barack Obama? It was not only because I am far to his political Left or that I see his party as existing almost only to crush potentially progressive political movements. I knew because somewhere in his book Dreams of My Father he revealed that early on in his life he “… ceased to advertise my mother’s {White} race” because he knew doing so was “ingratiating myself” to Whites. This was, to me, and admission that the largely symbolic overtures to Blackness in his campaign were crafted with the knowledge that White America needed his Blackness to be mediated by the Whiteness of his mother. In his youth Obama had chosen to deny such invitations to Whiteness, however, in his political maturity Obama would accept the overtures and give White America (at least White affluent voters) all they could ever want. I recognized his approach because as the son of a Black man and a White woman I had similarly long ago come to the same conclusions about how White America needs its Blackness presented. I have just never accepted the invitations or, as is said, to have politically “matured.”

So when I read Obama’s words I knew then the sophistication with which he both understood how race still works in the U.S. and how he would alter and then deploy that understanding in conservative, even anti-Black ways to serve his campaign objectives. Obama expressed an understanding of the subtleties of racism and how to manipulate them in his political favor, as a means of providing White corporate donors with a powerful rebranding of their worldview and providing, to a much lesser extent, White voters with the assurance that he was not to be feared given his Blackness could not be connected immediately to this country’s historical “baggage of slavery.” In other words, nobody knows White people and White supremacy better than Black Americans, and within that group, no one knows more than those of us with White parents.

My disagreements with Obama politically are not immediately relevant but do speak to different ways race and racism function and the various responses they engender. Obama, I suggest, recognized the overture to Whiteness early on, as many of us do, but then crafted a political career out of that recognition which led him to the presidency whereas others, say, evolve a differently political response and end up quite fulfilled but as more-or-less marginalized “radical” faculty at a Maryland HBCU. Whiteness wants of its Black captives answers to the question of that captivity which remain largely within the realm of vague calls to be heard, seen, considered, but that do not speak directly to redistributive policies that might actually make White people give up more than symbolic statements of solidarity. And Whiteness wants of its Black captives an almost unquestioned acceptance of Whiteness as an aspirational standard of human development. Why wouldn’t Obama or I want ingratiation into Whiteness by parading our mothers front and center?

Sure, I’ve been called “nigger,” or had White women clutch purses as I walk by. And every encounter I’ve ever had with the police – including an absurd arrest and subsequent “encouraged” four year “sentence” in the U.S. Navy, – regardless of my fair skin or White mother, has involved as an issue or concern my Blackness. This would include hearing my own mother’s fears of being pulled over by “the fuzz” worried what worse things might occur specifically because her child’s race, and her own racial “treachery,” would be realized. But mostly my interaction with racism, personally and professionally, has involved my own recognition but rejection of overtures to a kind of “lesser niggerdom” as a result of my mother’s categorization.

In microcosm my experience was summed up early on when a White boy told me, calmly, matter-of-factly, even, in his mind, as a sincere act of friendship that, “you’re a nigger but not like other niggers.” The invitation to an unachievable Whiteness offered by that boy, and rejected by me then and ever since, is recreated institutionally throughout society and is no less prevalent in academia. The biases are expressed in similar fashion with questions over the years asked, “why bother with Africana Studies?” Or as I was asked by a former Journalism professor, never shy about his many books, or his being the only father and son Pulitzer prize winners, and often angered by my routine critical engagement around race and class, “why are you here?!” Or the physical exile by that same graduate program to hinterland office space to be kept from further “radicalizing” other students, or having funding surreptitiously pulled without notice forcing me as one of only two Black men (at that time) to ever complete a Ph.D. in Journalism at the University of Maryland at College Park to scramble for last minute employment and survival funds. Or, more recently, an unfortunately extremely well-known Black academic pundit once told a mutual friend that he was trying to “save me” from my current marginalization by teaching me the game of racial performance and presentation; i.e. how to make more White people, particularly those in commercial media, like me.

That example speaks to how Whiteness often will function within academia. As is the case elsewhere there evolves a self-censorship where research, presentation of findings, or analyses and interpretation of that work and current news are all prescriptively offered so as to appease an often unspoken ideal of Whiteness, to appease an unseen White audience. That is the academia’s version of an invitation to Whiteness. The warning or attempt to school me by this superstar Black academic pundit was a spoken emblem of the rarely spoken reality in academia that one should not squander the opportunities afforded to the Black (performing) academic who will speak that Blackness comfortably to White audiences. It is the academic equivalent to being cinema’s “Magic Negro,” the Black character whose existence is only to help Whites transcend.

Specific challenges to diversity and research for academia, journalism and Black participants therein have more to do with politics, ideology, or the particular performance of that diverse presence. That is, while it remains true, and will likely worsen post-Covid 19, that Black involvement in higher education, and particularly at the levels of terminal degrees, is woeful, the challenges faced for diversity go beyond racial category but to how that imposed categorization is developed and to what end. As much an issue today as inclusion is how the involvement of those “othered” by Whiteness will radically engage and change trajectories of research, analysis, or interpretation. The intellectual insurgency, for instance, represented by Black and then Africana Studies was not simply the imposition of Blackness or Black bodies onto college campuses but the revolutionary interpretations which would often accompany that presence. What is most inspiring about uprisings, beyond the show of a collective political pulse, is that they are what have always preceded, aided, been aided by, the intellectual insurrections which have historically pushed themselves into campuses and newsrooms.

The threat contained within Black/Africana Studies, or various anti-colonial intellectual movements within Journalism, Media, and Communication Studies is always the connections to broader political movements and critical thought. In fact, Black Studies has been seen often as the intellectual wing of a Black Liberation struggle and, as such, the challenge remains for Black researchers going forward to involve themselves in the study and the production of new knowledge for and about today’s political currents, movements, organizations, and uprisings. Any push for further diversity must also include room for diversity of perspectives which allow for or even force Black academics and journalists to break free from further limiting invitations to Whiteness. 

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Author: Jared Ball
Emancipatory Journalism & Media Jared A. Ball is a father and husband. After that he is a professor of Media and Africana Studies and produces multimedia for imixwhatilike.org. > Dr. Jared A. Ball

2 thoughts on “Invitations to Whiteness

  1. An Invited Guess to Whiteness

    A social construct is something that exist not in objective reality, but as a result of human interaction, It exist because humans agree that it exist.

    “There is no such thing as race ,,,,None…. Scientifically, anthropologically, racism is a construct – a social construct.

    And it has benefits. Money can be made off of it, and people who don’t like themselves can feel better because of it. It can

    describe certain kinds of behavior that are wrong or misleading”—- Tony Morrison.

    “There’s a perception that whiteness is working for white people. It’s not … White people must join the world in fighting the

    pernicious ideas that created their category”.—- Quinn Norton.

  2. Thank you for sharing your perspective, experience and decisions, along with challenging the politics of academia. The dilemma of White acceptability and how to “make it” exists in so much of our lives. Many of us, unconsciously and consciously, believe that the only way to be “successful” is to center ourselves/work on and to approximate Whiteness, even to our detriment. To be fair, we have seen the path of the stalwart. Even in a1993 talk*, Dr. Naim Akbar mentioned how John Henrik Clarke, Chancellor Williams, John Jackson, and other gave their lives for Black people and died with essentially nothing. Of course, this shouldn’t be either. I’m convinced there is a way to live ones values and ideologies, fight and educate for freedom and have agency, without being bitter, penniless or compromised. No easy road, nonetheless. Again thank you your work and pushing us all to do better.

    *https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xkjs6cgTNCk

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