By March 18, 2014 0 Comments Read More →

James Baldwin: ‘White’ Is An Idea, ‘As long as you think you’re white, you’re irrelevant’


James Baldwin (1924-1987) was well-known for engaging critical issues of race and society between the late-1940s and the mid-1980s. His novels, essays, films, plays and poems, offered many ideas and critiques of race and racism. One of these ideas was a bit more ahead of its time than others. It was, however, in line with what biologists now realize: “white” has social, political and even ideological boundaries, but not biological ones. “Whiteness,” is an idea.

In Life magazine, in their May 24, 1963 issue, beside of photo of himself outside a storefront Nation of Islam mosque in Durham, North Carolina, Baldwin said: “The Black Muslims serve one extremely useful function: they scare white people. Otherwise they are just another racist organization and the only place they can go is to disaster”.

Baldwin seemed intent on not only shocking the nation with statements that he made about ideas of race and racism, but shocking them into paying attention.

Baldwin pulled everyone’s card and didn’t let anyone off the hook. Often times he did this by juxtaposing popular assumptions with statements that – while shocking – were utterly true.

On Malcolm X – widely imagined to be a violent terrorist of sorts in the conceptions of many – Baldwin wrote in No Name in the Street (1972) that “the truth about Malcolm: he was one of the gentlest people I have ever met”.

Baldwins challenges of racism and ideas of race extended to the very notion of whiteness itself. He explained that “this country is only white because it says it is.”

During a 1979 speech in Berkeley, he elaborated that, “Insofar as you think you’re white, you’re irrelevant. We can no longer afford that particular, romance.”

Discussing the novel Just Above My Head (1979) with Mel Watkins for The New York Times Book Review, in 1979, Baldwin continued to refer to “people who think they’re white.” The book, and the lack of many white people in it, Baldwin said, was a challenge to such people “to re-examine all their values, to put themselves in our place, share in our danger…” They were, he said, to ask themselves “why” they were irrelevant to the lives of the characters in the book. “They must get back in touch with reality. They can’t avoid it, if they want to live.  can’t avoid it if they want to live,” he said.

By 1980, Baldwin made it clear that “whiteness” was a “state of mind”. In speaking with Watkins again, he said the following:

“I’d like to say that when I say “white” I’m not talking about the color of anybody’s skin. I’m not talking about race. It’s a curious country, a curious civilization, that thinks of it as race. I don’t believe any of that. White people are imagined. White people are white only because they want to be white.”

In his book Tocqueville Baldwin spoke of global longings for “whiteness.”

“You’ve got to admit that we’re all white people now,” he wrote. “Everybody that got killed in that war is White, all got killed for Whitie. Even the people in China are White people now. That’s what a lot of these brown or yellow conservatives are really saying, and even they don’t realize what they’re getting at. They’re saying race doesn’t matter because they’ve become White.”

(Article by M.B. David; image via NPR)

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