Reflections on whiteness

As a white, masculine-presenting person who engages Black feminism and Black music, I must work carefully and self-critically if I am to accomplish anything of use. Because of my whiteness and the power that adheres to it, failure to handle Black media and Black texts with an ongoing self-accounting of my own whiteness can result in me doing more harm than good in my work. What follows is a reflection on how I understand myself in the context of the work that I do and some guiding principles I strive to follow.

At the root of my engagement with Black music and Black feminism is my desire to contribute, at least in some small measure, to the imagination and creation of a better world, and this desire is bound up in the context of where I come from. The shortest version of this story goes like this: the world seemed lousy and didn’t make sense to me when I was younger, and I kept asking people to make it make sense. As I grew and started seeking out different sources for answers about how the world works, I came to Black feminism and found better answers – not just for how the world works but for how we can imagine and create a world that works better – than I’d found anywhere else.

The longer version of that story, if you’re interested, is this. In my youth and young adulthood, I lived in Tennessee and Arkansas, and I thought I couldn’t wait to leave the South. I didn’t like it there, and I wanted to be somewhere better. What I came to later realize was that it wasn’t the South I wanted to leave; it was the white South. The South I grew up in was segregated – I went to schools that were almost entirely white, attended a church that was almost entirely white, and was taught by people who were entirely white. And everywhere I went, I was told that everyone was equal, that Black people and white people were the same. Sometimes there was an explicit “but” attached to that general statement of equality (“…but it’s best if white people and Black people don’t date,” for instance). Far more often, the “but” – the qualification my white surroundings placed on equity – wasn’t verbalized but was communicated through action and inaction. The older I got, the more aware I became of the gap between what I heard (platitudes about equality) and what I observed: money, power, opportunity were all distributed unevenly. And when I’d ask why that was, I usually heard an answer I’d later come to understand as a neoliberal one: everything is equal, but some people just make bad choices, so they don’t benefit from that equality.

No matter how many different ways I asked why things didn’t seem as equal/equitable as I’d been told they were, and no matter how many different ways the answer was put to me that everything was fine, I couldn’t square it all. It was classic cognitive dissonance, and my white surroundings wanted me to resolve that dissonance by believing what I was told, not what I could observe. What I was observing was a world that needed to change, but I was surrounded by a white system of knowledge production that denied any change was necessary. It’s not like I was rebelling or doing any sort of activism in my teens – far from it. I was participating in and benefitting from all of the power structures around me that favored my whiteness, even as I was chafing at the constrictions of the universe of knowledge as it was presented to me. I often felt like I was asking the wrong questions and tried my best to stop worrying about them like most everyone else around me seemed to have done.

By my 20s, when I was in graduate school, I finally realized that it wasn’t my questions that were wrong; rather, I was asking the wrong people. I didn’t know to put it in these terms at the time, but I was asking white people who were comfortable with white supremacy to explain white supremacy to me. Of course the answers were lousy! I first started finding what I thought were better answers in critical musicology (because I was in a musicology program – I don’t necessarily recommend this as a starting point for non-musicologists) written by Susan McClary, Gus Ramsey, Kofi Agawu and critical theory written by Adorno, Weber, Haraway. As my interests turned toward technology and theories of the posthuman, and as my musical focus shifted from the classical canon to popular music, I came to the writings of Sylvia Wynter, Hortense Spillers, Angela Davis, Barbara Smith, Katherine McKittrick, and I found that the cognitive dissonance I’d been struggling against was starting to resolve because my questions were now being answered by the right people.

In Black feminist writings, I found an activist literature that was working to create a more equitable world for everyone, not just a few. Angela Davis’s description of a feminist pyramid in Women, Culture and Politics crystallizes this idea, arguing that when we act in the interest of those at “the nadir of the pyramid” – ”Black and other racially oppressed women, the vast majority of whom come from working class backgrounds” – then any progress achieved will inevitably “push the entire structure upward. The forward movement of women of color almost always initiates progressive change for all women” (30-31). What Davis describes here is a generous, collaborative activism that strives to improve the world for those who have been treated the worst by the world – a fundamental reimagining of what the world can be, accompanied by the lifelong work of pushing things toward those imagined possibilities.

So, the reason I try to start all of my theorizing, all of my critical listening, all of my thinking with Black feminist literature and its points of intersection with other activist work is because it describes a world I’d like to live in. And if I want to live there, then I better pitch in on the work of making it a reality. Here are some things I try to keep in mind as I engage Black feminism and Black music as a white, masculine-presenting person. I use the word “should” a lot below to indicate that I am striving toward these things while recognizing I always have more work to do.

  • There’s a difference between what I identify as and what I identify with. I identify as white, but I should identify with practices and politics that improve the world for Black people.
  • I should listen to people whose lived experience informs their work and take my cues from them. That is, when Black feminism challenges something I believe or do, I should stop, reflect, and listen rather than marshal defenses that justify my previous beliefs and actions.
  • I should be aware of how power, money, and resources in general flow in my direction and work to reroute those in ways that benefit the people who inform my work. This could include, among other things, using department funds to invite Black women to guest lecture on campus, giving my time to activist organizations that fight for causes like prison abolition, using peer review and editorial gigs to encourage writers to read/engage/cite more Black women in their work, considering what sort of committee or administrative (lower-case “a”–grunt work kinds of things) work I can do on campus that eases the burden on my BIPOC colleagues (who are consistently handed more committee work than their white counterparts) and improves the conditions for BIPOC students.
  • The work should come first. I shouldn’t be aiming for academic celebrity (whether I could realistically attain it or not). I shouldn’t be primarily motivated by personal gain. I shouldn’t make choices with the expectation that I’ll be praised or commended or rewarded for those choices. Rather, I should follow where the work leads.
  • I have a certain expertise in music, and I know how to write and teach and theorize, but I should remember that I am not and will not ever be an authority on Blackness. I should therefore work with humility to try to contribute what I’m good at to the project of imagining a better world while recognizing that I’m a worker bee, not the Queen.
  • Similarly, I should carefully demonstrate proper citational practices in the classroom, especially when I am teaching about Black music or Black feminism. As the authority figure in the room, I should always point students toward the source of what I teach them, showing them how to read/listen, engage, and cite Black feminist work.
  • If I’m doing the above right, I should get comfortable with the fact that white people will not always be happy with me, and I should continue to learn not to use their approval to gauge the worth of my work.
  • I should keep the basic idea of intersectionality in mind, which is that race doesn’t operate independently from other systems of oppression. I should work to support those who are creating better worlds – accessible, anticolonial, trans-inclusive, sustainable worlds – on many different fronts.

My hope is that I am doing these things better than I was ten years ago and that I will be doing them better in ten years than I am doing now.