Navigating Blackness in a White World

A few years ago, I was invited to deliver a lecture at an Ivy League institution as part of a speaker series promoting diversity. I had a private meeting with the dean who led this initiative. A very self-congratulating white man with Southern and Midwestern roots, it was apparent that he took this initiative as proof that he was a racial liberal. This would quickly prove false.

My lecture was on the role of imagination in promoting racial equality. I argued that an important part of the equation is that whites need to be able to imagine what it is like to be Black in America. The tragic irony was that after my lecture ended, I learned that Officer Daniel Pantaleo had escaped indictment in the murder of Eric Garner. As is common for such events, the dean hosted a dinner for me. At the table were about 10 faculty, and only one other Black man. The dinner began with the dean turning to me and saying, “There’s one thing I can’t wrap my mind around. You think it’s important for me to know what it’s like to be Black?” Still burning from the Pantaleo news and knowing that no conversation can go well when it begins this way, I quietly responded, “Yes.” The dean seemed slightly scandalized and responded, “Huh! Well, you think you know what it’s like to be white?” I paused for a second before responding to the ignorant statement with the vitriol it deserved and said simply, “I sure do.” But the dean didn’t know when to quit and demanded that I “prove it.” I set my silverware down, turned to him and said, “I’m sitting at this table with you, aren’t I? How do you think I managed that?” And that concluded the conversation, if for no other reason than the dean needed time to scrape his jaw from the floor.

I tell this story to make a broader point about race in the United States. I’m proud and grateful to say that I am a moderately successful Black person in America. But more fundamentally, I am a survivor.

All Black people in America are first and foremost survivors. And the first thing survivors learn are the ways of those who actively prey upon them and/or comfortably benefit from that predation.

The relationship between survivor and predator is not frequently described in racial terms because the veneer of democracy and the lie of a fair capitalist system obscure America’s basic relationship of predation upon Black and Brown lives. These institutions enforce the value, worth, and capabilities of white Americans. White Americans learn that disruption of procedural fairness is scandalous and incredible, but attaining the nation’s most coveted goods is an entitlement. Many prefer a flattering description of their own attitudes, noting that they believe in working for what one gets, but this work ethic is underwritten by feeling entitled to the very opportunity to work and the unspoken expectation, based on history, that the government is their ally.

Black folks have observed these attitudes closely. We have worked their land, raised their children, built their railroads, been hung from trees for their entertainment, suffered radical and tragic abuse at the hands of the criminal justice system, and sent our children to freezing schools with leaky roofs and lead-filled drinking water. And through this all, we know exactly what it is like to be white. It is not merely the opposite of our deprivations. Rather, we know very well the attitude that looks upon Blacks as somehow less capable, while others view themselves as the chosen of the nation. This attitude gives many white Americans a sense of importance that is often detached from the reality of a society that places achievements within easy reach of some and farther out of reach for others.

So when the dean incredulously asked me whether I know what it’s like to be white and I said yes, I meant it. I grew up lower-income in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, experienced welfare and unemployment, and coming home to dispossession notices when the rent was missed. I went to a public college later in life and learned only then what a doctorate was and that I, of all people, could earn one. And then I learned that even someone like me could maybe go to a top-flight program. I attended MIT and learned what it was like to wear three letters on your shirt and watch people at malls change their whole attitude toward you. And each step along that path, I knew what it was like for nothing to be expected of me and what it was like when people were threatened when I did much more than nothing. I learned firsthand the threat people felt when I would not relinquish my standing as a self-respecting intellectual for whom racial inequality was important.

Which is why I could tell that dean that I knew exactly what it was like to be white. His attitude is a direct result of inhabiting a society that tells him that he is exactly where he is supposed to be. As for me, I am a lucky passerby in his world. Because the world has sought to teach me this lesson about myself, and instead taught me and others deeper lessons about whiteness. Whiteness in America is to know in your bones that this land is your land, and every institution will work to grant you its bounty before anyone else.

Whiteness is also knowing the fear of suspecting that that privilege is built on a lie and historical crimes. I and many Black and Brown folks know this about whiteness because our lives have been spent wresting the goods from hands that often don’t deserve them, then putting them to more use than we were supposed to and striking fear into the hearts of those for whom the truth of the matter is unpleasant and destabilizing. To know whiteness is to know survival while Black, and because many white folks have never really had to question the terms of their existence, they probably will never know what it’s like to be me.

About the Author

Chris Lebron is the associate professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and a senior writer for The North Star. He specializes in political philosophy, social theory, the philosophy of race, and democratic ethics. His work has focused on bridging the divide between analytic liberalism and the virtue ethics tradition. He is the author of The Color of Our Shame: Race and Justice In Our Time (2013) and The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of An Idea (2017).