How does it feel to be a problem? Du Bois’ great question—the one that, for Dubois, goes unasked or cannot be asked directly—haunts Robert Huber’s recent article, “Being White in Philly: Whites, race, class, and the things that never get said.” Many have already offered their own critical commentaries on Huber’s, well, racist nonsense, and many of them are fantastic. Here, I want to track how Huber implicitly draws upon currents of black Atlantic 20th century social theory in order to construct whiteness as a kind of public disability. Huber’s piece tries (journalistically) tacking between the sociological and the phenomenological, between an appreciation of the structuring of social reality and the modalities by which social reality comes to appearance. Huber’s piece should be located, then, in a genealogy of black thought that might go from Douglass to Du Bois to Fanon. Black thought is repurposed to construct an aggrieved white subjectivity. How does it feel to be a problem? A white guy from the Mount Airy is going to let you know.
Indeed, the rhetoric of the problem is set to work both in Huber’s piece and in the justification for running the article offered by Philly Mag’s editor. Tom McGrath gives two reasons for publishing Huber’s article. First, black people have kind of monopolized discussions of race, and, you see, “to pretend that white people don’t also have thoughts and feelings about the issue is dishonest.” So, Huber offers to readers a kind of Cugoano-esque Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evils of Race. As a second reason for publishing the article, McGrath offers that “not to do this story would be to declare that the problems of Philadelphia’s underclass are theirs and theirs alone.” Apparently, the Philly poors are so poor that they can no longer claim possession of their problems. If failing to publish the story would be to cede possession of these “problems” wholesale to Philly’s underclass, publishing the story functions as a declaration of proprietorship, of property. These problems affect white people, too—particularly when these “problems” become embodied and personified in people bearing black skins. For McGrath and Huber, the primary problem affecting white people is that “being white” disqualifies white people from assuming some form of public proprietorship over the public discourse of race and racism. “Being white” means that you don’t get to articulate all of those “thoughts and feelings” welling up in your white breast. “Being white” means that the moment you try to articulate those thoughts and feelings, you become a problem, you risk being racist. What McGrath and Huber are after, quite simply, is a way of “being white” that is not “being racist.” They want a public discussion where people with white skin can speak as white, as “being white,” and to have this racialized knowledge accepted as a meaningful and valid contribution to the public. But, alas, to be white is to be a problem.
So, how does it feel to be a problem? After telling us that he lives on a “mostly African-American block” in Mount Airy, Huber confesses:
Yet there’s a dance I do when I go to the Wawa on Germantown Avenue. I find myself being overly polite. Each time I hold the door a little too long for a person of color, I laugh at myself, both for being so self-consciously courteous and for knowing that I’m measuring the thank-you’s.
One can hear, in this quotidian staging of racial awareness, of becoming raced, echoes of Du Bois, echoes of Fanon. One can hear the opening lines of the chapter “The Facts of Blackness” from Black Skin, White Masks, the lines that resound throughout Fanon’s meditation on what being black is: “Look, a Negro!” Huber feels a duplication of consciousness, he feels the awareness that another’s eyes are running over his body, that his skin conveys certain meanings. “Look, a white guy! Being liberal!” He feels awkward, he laughs at himself. But this awkwardness conveys a deep anxiety: Huber knows that all of his actions are scripted, that he’s performing a certain kind of liberal whiteness, and he knows that the black people for whom he holds doors know it too. When he “measure[es] the thank-you’s,” he’s not simply disciplining potentially discourteous black people with his judging eyes; he is, first and foremost, trying to ascertain whether or not he properly pulled off the performances that being a liberal white guy entails. Huber, in essence, is non-sovereign: to be a good liberal white he has to act in a certain way but—and here’s the kicker—he is himself not allowed to judge the felicity of his own performance. Non-sovereignty marks the quotidian phenomenology of being-white-around-black-people. To feel white is to feel compelled to perform a set of actions whose success white people are constitutively prevented from measuring.
Huber, in effect, suddenly feels what it is to feel racially marked, to feel that one’s existence is a problem for reasons derived from a source beyond one’s immediate control. He recognizes that the black guy passing through the door that he holds open has him pegged, that his capacity for free and spontaneous action has been constricted—so temporarily—by the fact that this black guy has a kind of knowledge of the generic forms Huber’s actions can take. (That Huber has a special kind of racial mobility, that he can drive through the ghetto and get out quickly, that he can ask his son to move from his gentrifying but “dangerous” neighborhood—this raced/classed ability to avoid encounters is ignored.) The problem is that Huber wants to convert this felt recognition of extremely temporary non-sovereignty into the basis of a plea for racial sovereignty. He doesn’t want to destroy whiteness; rather, he wants whiteness to be something more than the awkward embodiment of a structural entitlement. He wants whiteness to signify a special claim to a special knowledge. He wants whiteness to be a substantive identity in the public sphere, one that can claim some kind of knowledge, some kind of property in the common problem of race. He wants to transform the fact of passively being white into an active identity: To fix the “problems” of race, white people have to start being white. Moreover, they have to be allowed to be white in the public sphere, to speak as white. As Huber relates, white dudes are already speaking privately about race, anyhow (pooling knowledge on how to say hi to people with black skins, for instance); this knowledge simply needs to be made public. At stake, McGrath claims, is the future of the future, of progress itself: “To not talk about race is to admit that we can never move forward.”
The fantasy underpinning all of this horseshit is that “we can…move forward” without the “we” undergoing a qualitative alteration, that racism can be ended without whiteness being eradicated. Let’s be clear: Whiteness has no future. Huber knows this: being white, holding open a door in Germantown, suspended on the threshold, he knows that his capacity for action is limited, that he can’t move forward or backward, that whiteness can only maintain itself so long as it preserves a suspended present. And note all the space-thinking in his article: all synchrony, no diachrony: whiteness can only preserve itself by eliding open time from the equation and distributing temporality throughout contained spaces. Huber wants to think of “being white” as identical to being any other race (although, as many have pointed out, he elides the multi-racial composition of Philly). Indeed, as I’m suggesting, he deploys classic moves of black social critique in order to code whiteness as a tragic form of epidermalization, a terrible denial of his full range of human potential. He wants white to be (like) black, as if race-thinking and the horizontal, non-hierarchical thinking of democratic publicness were in any way compatible. They aren’t. Race is always already a discourse and material practice of stratification, with White Guy sitting at the top of the heap. The problem of race is the fact of whiteness.
This means, well, being white contains no special insights into race, it doesn’t offer a program for progress into an anti-racist future. “Being white” in a publically active sense or claiming whiteness as a viable identity will never yield an anti-racist politics. Anti-racism is the dialectical negation of whiteness. There is quite simply no way of achieving an anti-racist society and preserving whiteness. Negating whiteness isn’t/won’t be easy; it necessitates a wholesale structural transformation, from reconstitutions of ordinary language and social ritual to massive politico-economic revolutions. It also necessitates that white liberals like Huber take seriously the fact that “being white” offers no insight into how these transformations will come about, that racialized people have knowledges (like, say, a knowledge of Huber’s scripted performance) that people committed to “being white” do not possess, and that people with white skins need to listen, learn, and follow—not preach. The negation of whiteness does not begin from within whiteness. It never has.
Huber is not alone in possessing these thoughts and feelings, of course. The intimate public of middle-aged well-off white dudes he writes for is pretty broad. I hate this fucking article so much because he wants to conscript me, a white Philly-born well-ff guy, into his public; he wants me to say, I hear ya, man, shit’s fucked up when a field of being is marked as constitutively beyond the range of the social-managerial authority constitutive of being white. The article will no doubt be met with quiet nods of assent from readers in Center City, Bucks County, the Main Line…a group of already privileged people will have learned that being white entails even more privileges than they knew about: White people should be allowed to speak with untrammelled authority about black people, once again—that’s what racial equality is all about. The article will be discussed at dinner parties, a reasonably priced bottle of wine in; it will be introduced in a conspiratorial tone, as one white dude hopes another feels, like he does, the burden of having a white skin. They will learn, together, that the problem of being white is not whiteness but their not being allowed to be white. But a tremor of anxiety will inflect the conversation, an anxiety produced by the only knowledge that comes with being white—that whiteness has no future, that it cannot last. And maybe one of their kids, home for the weekend from Villanova, having just read Fanon and Du Bois, will tell them why that is so.