The Psychic Hauntings of Racism

David Roediger’s book “The Wages of Whiteness” discussed the author Herman Melville frequently, and I recently came across a New York Times article comparing the racial dynamics in Melville’s novella “Benito Cereno” to America’s current supposedly “post-racial” society.

“Benito Cereno” takes place on a ship. The ship’s white captain thinks that his crew is composed of slaves, but in reality they are escaped slaves who have risen up and killed the prior captain. The new captain thinks that the character of Babo is his cheerful and devoted servant, but in reality Babo exercises “masterly discipline over his inner thoughts” and later attempts a revolt against the ship’s captain.

The New York Times article compares readers’ fears toward Babo to the racist fears of many Tea Partiers and Republicans that Obama has some secret plot to avenge Africa and destroy America. As a result of these racist projections, Obama faces an “opposition convinced of not just his political but his existential illegitimacy.” As Baratunde Thurston points out in “How To Be Black,” Obama has had to exercise extreme self-control and humility to be seen as legitimate and avoid the damning label of “Angry Black Negro” (192).

Yet, the article points out that “this intense self-control seems to be what drives the president’s more feverish detractors into a frenzy; they fill that screen with hatreds drawn deep from America’s historical subconscious.” In this sense, a post-racial society is a myth not only because of America’s continuing structural inequalities — the way that race is still largely determinate of access to life opportunities — but also in the way that racism is continually generated in the white psyche. We see this when racist opponents of Obama both fear a mythical revenge but are enraged when that revenge is not delivered — because their identity is grounded in comparison of themselves to an imagined black person, they are denied the emotional payoff when the model of blackness that they are comparing themselves to is proven to be hollow.

The article writes:

“Published in late 1855, as the United States moved toward the Civil War, Benito Cereno is one of the most despairing stories in American literature. Amasa Delano represents a new kind of racism, based not on theological or philosophical doctrine but rather on the emotional need to measure one’s absolute freedom in inverse relation to another’s absolute slavishness.”

Clearly, the wages of whiteness that Roediger discusses — the way that whiteness provides a psychological and emotional wage  — continues to live on today. How these wages of racism are to be deconstructed is a complex question, but because they were constructed willingly by white people, it seems that they must be deconstructed by white people as well.

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