Today is Constitution Day, and a good day to consider the Syntax of our Whiteness as a nation
I learned to speak my native English “correctly” as a toddler, and was fluid in its syntax – its rules for sentence structure, long before I diagrammed a sentence or answered an essay question on an exam.
It was decades later that I encountered a deeper meaning in Carlos Castaneda’s poem, where he described the syntax of our “mother tongue” –
“a syntax which demands beginnings, like birth,
and developments, like maturation,
and ends, like death, as statements of facts.”
From “The Active Side of Infinity” Copyright 1998 by Laugan Productions
I am only now beginning to see how fundamental this linear, developmental, progress-oriented, fact-pinning, individualistic syntax is to the Whiteness that makes life in America so dangerous for Black people, and so Unquestionably Normal for White people.
I learned to answer to Miss ____ or Mrs____ , and to call Black people by their first names.
I learned that White people lived in Good Neighborhoods, or sometimes Working Class Neighborhoods. And that Good Neighborhoods had the Best Schools.
I learned it was impolite to ask why Black people lived in shambled neighborhoods that I saw as the Rapid Transit passed out of the suburbs and closer to the smoky industrial heart of Cleveland.
I learned that teachers were white, rabbis and priests and nuns were White, ballet dancers were white, and janitors and jazz musicians and basketball players and baby nurses and maids were Black.
I learned there were not-nice English words and Yiddish words used for Black people, and Good White Adults used them.
We White people are fish in water.
Just as the syntax of a language disappears into a flow of words that follows the rules of that language, so do the Rules of Whiteness disappear – for White people, into the Normal Flow of Daily Life.
We White people are fish in water: ask us to describe what we swim in, and we are mute. Sometimes we are mute with lack of understanding. Sometimes with guilt and shame.
Meanwhile, Black people – in order to survive and – even against great odds, thrive – have long been keen observers, cataloguers, scholars and accomplished actors in White Syntax.
I call this condition that we all live in being racialized.
It is a syntax that teaches all of us that the grammar of being human in the United states is based on skin color.
This syntax has assigned to the White-skinned the power to own Black bodies, and at various times in our history to control their bodies – their freedom of movement, living space, family integrity, sexual autonomy, and livelihood by means of the lash, the noose, a knee on the neck, sundown laws, poll taxes, voter literacy tests, penal codes, and redlining, among others.
We may be woke, we may be deeply asleep
We may be kind, we may be mean.
We may be committed activists or mystified by what all the fuss is about..
We may have material wealth and possessions or little, or be thoroughly dispossessed of home and livelihood.
We may have colonial or immigrant or mixed-raced ancestors who came here earlier or later, owned slaves or didn’t, profited from slavery or didn’t, redlined or didn’t, white-flighted to the suburbs or didn’t.
We may live in misery or contentment.
We are all racialized.
We may be male or female-identified, non-binary, lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender or queer.
We are all gendered.
We are all racialized.
The coarse and urgent tone of public discourse, the blogosphere, the social media memes may knock us awake, knock us into reactivity, knock us about, and use us up in fruitless and unpleasant arguments.
But they enlist the coarser parts of us and and keep us cut off from our full humanity – and therein lies the heart of the problem.
To cut off a Black person’s humanity by controlling their movement, their habitation, and their livelihood is to cut off our own.
To cut off a Black person’s humanity by seeing them only as Black and not as the unique, precious human individual they are, is to cut off our own claim to our individuality and to take on a Faceless and cruel Whiteness.
To restore full humanity to Black people is to restore our own.
We are urgently tasked to come clean, get real about our history, reckon with our moral failings, and the psychological trauma and material consequences of twenty generations of this American life governed by White Syntax.
If you are committed to racial and gender equity, and wondering how you can come out of the trance of your unconscious biases, and discern the course of action that is yours to take, get in touch for a free 30-minute Radical Inclusion consult.