He puts the term “white” in quotations because he is trying to clarify the meaning of the word for him. From the quote, James Baldwin defines “white” by identifying what it is and what is not. First, he says that race is not the color of the skin and not race. Second, he defines “white” as imagined, a product of a “curious” country and civilization, and a choice made by white people themselves. Finally, he defies whiteness as a race by saying that he does not believe that white is a race. Putting quotations marks in this term means that he challenges the previously held connotations that come with the word, “white” which tend to characterize it as a race and status in a racialized society.
From the quote and interpretation of “white” according to James Baldwin, we can trace at least three theories: intersectionality theory, systemic racism theory, color-blind racism theory, and double-consciousness. In defining “white” as not referring to skin color and race, James Baldwin contrasts Intersectionality Theory.
As a theory, intersectionality focuses on the different means through which people are differentiated or classified. Among the proponents of intersectionality theory in Sociology, C. W. Mills, points out the “Enlightenment dichotomization,” a term coined by a fellow sociologist, Pierre van den Berghe, as the beginning of a period when “’Race’ gradually became the formal marker of this differentiated status… a category crystallized over time in European thought to represent entities who are humanoid but not fully human and who are identified as such by being members of the general set of nonwhite races (23).” It originated from the need of the West for self-identification and identification of the “others.” In this regard, the differentiation criterion was not only the color of the skin, but also the ‘status’ of being colonizers and subjects.
The European colonizers chose to ignore the existing “civilizations” or societies and differentiated themselves as “civilized” people in contrast to “barbarians” or “slaves.” In associating intersections or classifications, hierarchical social relations are embedded: one dominates while the “other” subordinates.
This need to identify one’s self by citing differences with the others dictated the succeeding course of social relations. According to Cheryl Harris, “The construction of white identity and the ideology of racial hierarchy also were intimately tied to the evolution and expansion of the system of chattel slavery…although not all Africans were slaves, virtually all slaves were not white. It was their racial otherness that came to justify the subordinated status of Blacks (1717).”
In this regard, part of the “white” identity is to be at the top of the racial hierarchy while the racial “otherness” or being “not white” warrants a subordinated status. This idea of constructing the “white” identity echoes the last sentence of James Baldwin’s quote: “White people are white only because they want to be white.” In sum, whiteness is produced by the process of self-identification and differentiation with others.
James Baldwin also defines “white” as a product of a curious country and civilization, which reflects the Systemic Racism Theory. Mills describes the “racial contract” between the ‘white’ colonizers and their ‘subjects’ who are non-whites. According to Mills, “Racial Contract establishes a racial polity, a racial state… where the status of whites and nonwhites is clearly demarcated… And the purpose of this state…specifically to maintain and reproduce this racial order, securing privileges and advantages of the full white citizens and maintaining the subordination of nonwhites (13-14).”
Racial contract made sure that for a “civilization” or “society” to emerge, there should be the intervention of “white” men who constructed their identity in the merits of their difference with the “others” and white supremacy was to be the foundation of the newly established civilizations. We know this today as the “racial structure,” which Eduardo Bonilla defines as the “totality of the social relations and practices that reinforce white privilege.” Those who are racialized as “whites,” members of the dominant race struggle to maintain white supremacy to continue receiving the benefits of the existing racial order.
On the other hand, those who belong in the subordinate race struggle to change the status quo. Hence, racial relations, as we know it today, is characterized by the struggle of racial inequality (Bonilla 9). With all facets of identity-formation and nation-building emanating from the ideology of white supremacy, the status quo became more and more difficult to challenge.
Even if most “whites” today no longer uphold the major tenets of white supremacy, racism does not end. According to Bonilla, the racism during the colonization and Jim Crow era was replaced by color-blind racism theory which has four frames: abstract liberalism, naturalization, cultural racism, and minimization of racism. Abstract liberalism emphasizes equal opportunity, capitalism, and individualism to explain race.
Institutionalized racism in education, criminality, etc. is masked by the rhetoric of abstract liberalism. Naturalization involves framing racial relations as a natural or biological occurrence— “the way things are.” Cultural racism frames racial relations in terms of differences in cultures to explain why minorities experience inequality. Lastly, there is minimization of racism or downplaying the effects of racial discrimination towards minorities (Bonilla 76-78). While the idea of “colorblindness” seemingly demolishes the idea of race as the root cause of racial inequality, the belief somewhat ignores the elephant in the room. After all, discrimination was no longer skin-deep—it has manifested in all facets of the nation.
Even so, James Baldwin tries to defy these concepts of “white” as a race in saying that “I don’t believe in any of that.” However, rather than seeing this as a colorblind statement, it could be interpreted as a reflection of double-consciousness. W.E.B. Du Bois, in The Souls of Black Folk writes, “The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife… to merge his double self into a better and truer self… He would not Africanize America… He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both Negro and an American (4).”
Maybe, James Baldwin believes that we have move past the time that “white” is a color of the skin or race. After all, if the previous “whites” can imagine they are “white” just because they wanted to be “white,” then the African Americans can do the same. Just like how the previous “whites” formed their identity by being “white,” the African Americans can also form their own identity around this “whiteness” wherein they played a crucial role to build, reproduce, and maintain for centuries of hardships.
In sum, I agree with James Baldwin that “white” is imagined and made by choice. In the beginning, ‘white’ is a way to define one’s self until it was used as the foundation of the civilizations that the Europeans have built. Colorblindness is tempting, but institutionalized racism is not imagined. Racial inequality is a persistent problem that we have read in history books and continue seeing in the newspapers and television today.