Carrying the Weight of How the White World Imagines You

Monday, August 14, 2017 - 6:45 pm

Carrying the Weight of How the White World Imagines You

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
Albert Einstein

I didn’t mean to write this essay.

I had another one in mind that was going to speak mainly to white readers (as I so often have felt compelled to do). That essay would demonstrate what we already know about so many white people in the U.S. across the political and ideological spectrum: that the ways they imagine those of us who aren’t white and male and “normal” make it impossible for them to see us and themselves accurately. That the white imagination is killing us.

What did he see? From his vantage point beside the car, where was shadow, where was movement? Where was light? What threatening darkness filled his vision, and what was its source? What had the man in the uniform beside the car brought with him? Who conjured the monster he later described? In whom did it lie, and from whom did it emerge?

I planned to explain how the default equation of white maleness with normality leaks out during everyday interactions with white people, how often “good schools” and “good neighborhoods” serve as code for “predominantly white.” I would describe how, even in the mainly liberal spaces I inhabit, and among the politically progressive, white people show few qualms about surrounding themselves almost exclusively with other white people.

By “the white imagination” I mean a worldview in which the presence, perspectives, and experiences of white Americans — especially males — of European descent are taken are treated as “normal,” as the default. Though I’m not white, I feel qualified to describe the white imagination because it dominates the nation in which I was raised and in which I live.

The white imagination is killing us — and the white imagination is not limited to white people.

I wanted to explain that non-white people also came to see the world through the white imagination’s lens. I wanted to describe how many marginalized people have felt obliged to absorb it, how I’ve spent much of my own life peeling away the layers of its influence.

The white imagination raised me on 1960s and ‘70s TV almost completely devoid of non-whites. When it did portray people of color, they invariably fell into one of four categories: idealized representatives of “their people” (that is, bearing the markers of white, middle-class culture); folks tragically caught, and bravely trying to overcome, life in “the ghetto”; athletes and entertainers; or criminals.

The white imagination ignored authors of color during my high school and college years in the 1970s and ‘80s, authors often still unknown to my college students today, since the white imagination’s default for quality literature is writing by white authors. This despite the powerful writing from marginalized writers reaching back a century and more.

The white imagination expresses dismay at criticism that Dunkirk erases people of color since its default is that World War II and its soldiers were white, though history demonstrates otherwise.

The success of films such as Hidden Figures or Get Out surprises the white imagination since its default for “audiences” is white. Likewise, it finds the opposition to HBO’s Confederacy bewildering, since slavery fails to evoke for its white audiences the personal, visceral images of family members owned by other human beings.

Some white people may feel shock at Dr. Robin DiAngelo’s “racial breakdown of the people who control our institutions” in 2016-17:

Congress: 90% white

Governors: 96% white

Top military advisers: 100% white

President and vice president: 100% white

Current POTUS cabinet: 91% white

People who decide which TV shows we see: 93% white

People who decide which books we read: 90% white

People who decide which news is covered: 85% white

People who decide which music is produced: 95% white

Teachers: 83% white

Full-time college professors: 84% white

But under the sway of the white imagination, we move in this world daily witnessing the levers of institutional power and influence wielded almost exclusively by white hands.

Yes, through such examples, I intended to send readers reeling into self-examination. But something happened on the way to that essay: I got tired.

I mean the bone tiredness we get from being a brown body in the world and daily carrying the weight of how the white world imagines you. Because how do you contend with someone else’s fantasy of you, especially when they don’t admit it’s a fantasy? We are caught in another’s nightmare script, which treats everyday acts as capital crimes.

You are not doing what the man in uniform fears. You tell the man in uniform that you are not doing what he fears. The woman next to you tells the man in uniform that you are not doing what he fears. The man in uniform’s fear tells his imagination otherwise. He squeezes the trigger.

We are inkblots on which the white imagination so often projects its goodness. On the shadow of our skin, against brown and female and othered bodies, whiteness is imaged as virtuous, tolerant, rational, moral. Christian. American. Human. Normal. Beneath the wearying grind of trying to see yourself through the mind of those who have never really seen you — who refuse to see you — the knowledge that this may never change gives rise to despair.

Later the uniformed man said that the child’s presence heightened his fear. Later the uniformed man drew a circuitous route in which the child’s presence made the brown man before him more dangerous. Did anyone notice the irony? That this brown man who worked at a school, this brown man whom so many children (and their parents) esteemed, that the presence of his own child would be used to imagine him a monster. So I find myself asking again: Who conjured this monster? From whom did it emerge?

Yes, trying to write that essay to that audience — an audience mired unreflectively in the white imagination — made me tired. So I decided to write this one — to you — instead. And this is what I said:

The need to defend its “superiority” constrains the white imagination. The burden of staying orthodox and hiding the messy multiplicity of reality forces oppressors and the privileged to excise aspects of their own history. They can’t be weak; they can’t reveal mistakes; they can’t express the pain that’s part of life. This diminishes how much they can fail and learn and grow.

Our imagination has no such limits, partly because we have nothing to lose. For those of us marked as inherently deficient (with whatever “sympathy” or “pity” those labels have been assigned) imagining, creating, and naming are serious spiritual business. They mean survival, sanity, and redemption.

We know where the monster lives; we know where it came from. It’s the beast of the white imagination. And we answer with our own visceral, vivid imaginations — released in poetry, music, painting, photography, film, theater — to keep that beast at bay.

We know the difference between seeing the world through a white curtain and seeing the world clearly. We counter their images of us with our own, speaking to us and asserting our reality. Against their assumed virtue, we narrate their oppression and hypocrisy and scrub away the layers of their fantasies about themselves.

We know you can police bodies, but you can’t police imaginations forever. They bleed their truths like a stain spreading wide on a white rug.

Recalling all of this, I wrote the Other essay now before your eyes. I wrote it for us, not to talk about the imaginations that seek to destroy us but to reaffirm the imaginations that sustain us. I remembered that our heart pulses the beat of this culture, that the very idea of the United States is impossible without us. It’s our music, art, language, and even our hair that white America continually tries to slip over its pale skin.

Writing this, I sometimes still feel anger, grief, and even despair, but my spirit isn’t tired anymore. I feel something more useful than happiness and more powerful than hope. I feel life. I feel joy. Because my imagination has awakened, and I remember that we have stories of our own to tell.

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Born in Germany during the same year that construction began on the Berlin Wall, Miguel Clark Mallet grew up as an Army brat on military bases across the United States and in Latin America. Early in life, he became fascinated with both spirituality and language, a connection fed by his years as an altar boy, and cemented by the nun in his 8th grade year of Catholic school who taught both his English and religion classes. Mallet originally studied journalism in college (he particularly enjoyed copy editing), eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in English and then an MFA in fiction.

He spent the bulk of the next 20 years as a college-level writing teacher and writing program administrator in North Carolina, Iowa, and Arizona, where he earned a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition; he also had a short stint as a technical editor. Mallet’s current interests center on the intersection of the personal, the social (especially involving race), and the spiritual, and on writing — its ambiguity and fluidity — as a means to explore that intersection. He believes in writing as a tool for both reflection, disruption, and transformation. Currently at work on both a speculative fiction novel and a long work blending verse, memoir, polemic, and fiction, he writes, runs, and lives in the Twin Cities.

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  • Tyrone Davis Jr

    Thank you for this. Thank you.

  • Gillian Culff

    A beautiful and important piece of writing. I will share it on both my personal and professional pages and encourage people–especially white people–to read it. Thank you, Miguel Clark Mallet, for taking the time to write this, despite your understandable fatigue.

  • Rebecca

    I do love this article. It says a lot of what we need to hear. Thank you for writing and sharing it with us. However, I do have one objection: “I would describe how, even in the mainly liberal spaces I inhabit, and among the politically progressive, white people show few qualms about surrounding themselves almost exclusively with other white people.” I live in a very southern, conservative small town. And yes, we have people of color in our very “good neighborhood”. We embrace them, but unfortunately, they do not embrace us. Those people of color do not involve themselves in the community events, to which they are continually encouraged to attend.

    In addition, I taught for 25 years at a very “good school”. Approximately 40% of the teachers were people of color. The chose to keep them selves apart from the other teachers in all activities, including eating lunch. I can tell you that these people were encouraged to join us, but we were never invited to join them. How are we to learn about others and get away from our “white imagination” if we don’t have people who are willing to either invite us to their rituals and ceremonies, and come to ours when invited?

    • Wendy Robinson

      I’m not a person of color, but I have to imagine that if I lived in a “very southern, conservative small town” I would be very, very cautious of my level of interaction with white people. History has not shown that intermixing white people generally ends well for people of color. It will take time for white people to deserve the trust of people of color. Many still don’t.

      • Rebecca

        I appreciate your thoughts, and definitely understand them. However, these people live amongst us as equals, in the same subdivision. There has NEVER been a case of violence against someone of another race in this town in over 100 years. I would hope we could make some progress. It saddens me that the rift is still there.

    • Gabby

      Rebecca, please let me recommend a couple of books which I have read in the last six months which examine how to foster interactions in which people might overcome the tendency to see “Them” (whoever “Them” may be) in a sort of monolithic, stylized way and begin actually to see each other in a more authentic way. I am sure there are many such expositions, but these were compelling to me.
      First, an old book , written by sociologist Elijah Anderson, is called The Cosmopolitan Canopy. The author, a professor at UChicago, I think, describes and analyzes several different public settings in Philadelphia, some of which “work” to foster authentic, open-minded interaction and some of which don’t.
      A new book by Stanford neurobiologist and primatologist Robery Sapolsky is called Behave. It is a brilliant book with a broader focus but does devote several chapters to Us and Them and ways of bringing down barriers of prejudice, over-generalization, and misunderstanding.

      • Rebecca

        Thank you, Gabby. I will look for it.

        • Just My Opinion

          I would also highly recommend Ta’Nehisi Coate’s book, Between the World and Me. It is written as a letter to his fifteen-year-old son, which gives it a very specific context. It’s not a long book, but it is stretching my mind and thinking in a way that requires me to s-l-o-w down and digest it. It is past time for us to understand that it is OUR responsibility to deal with the collective “white imagination” and recognize that it will take time and genuine effort to improve our interactions with our fellow human beings.

  • Niyonu Spann

    This essay does a fabulous job of describing the impact of living under illusion. If it had ended there (though describing “there” is quite a feat in its own right), I would not have shared it. It is the place that he gets to in his last paragraph. It’s what happens when you allow yourself to actually look hard past the illusion and engage radical truth. Here is that joy that lays buried beneath the lies. Here is the door to the wholeness which I believe is our birthright! Thank you brother Miguel. Peace & solidarity ~ Niyonu

  • Fel Jones

    I am white, I am male, and I am so incredibly privileged, a fact I have felt a gnawing sense of guilt about most of my adult life. I have also been writing a book the last three-plus years addressing our society’s crying need for personal growth and interpersonal dialogue, trying to address an unreflective majority and hoping “to send readers reeling into self-examination.” (What a fabulous phrase!)

    Your article has touched my own exhaustion at my task, and I now find myself rethinking who to address and how to do so. I feel a weight lifting. Thank you, both for the personal insight you have sparked, and for your own valiant work in trying to make us bigger and better people.

  • Children don’t see color until they are taught to, They assume and imagine similarity and connection. Once taught to discriminate, either positively or negatively, it is very difficult to ‘unsee” that. Whole stories are build around “those people” and “these people” and we come to associate all people with those stories. But there is a way to turn that around. It doesn’t happen by trying to change the stories, the we did this and they did that stories, though changing the stories is important too. It just isn’t enough to make the difference. To “unsee” difference one need to have the “other” in your close circle of friends. Then the things that separate become invisible again and we can connect on our common humanity. It is the things we share that connect us, not in spite of.

    • Gabby

      Research on infants and toddlers shows that three-year-olds already distinguish by color and gender. I don’t think there is evidence that this was taught rather than developmental.
      Making distinctions of various kinds start early.

      • Yes children distinguish gender and from about 18 months. But here’s the thing. It doesn’t in any way stop children being friends between boys and girls and white and coloured. There is no ‘those people’. Racism is not a developmental stage. It is learnt. There is a ample evidence.

        • Gabby

          The work cited in Sapolsky is not about racism. It is about “us” and “other” distinctions. I was responding to your statement that children do not see color.

          • Sure, Gabby. I realised my previous comment was unclear so that’s what I was referring to. I don’t doubt the veracity of Sapolsky’s study. Cheers.

          • random guy

            Hi, David.

            I agree with you, racism is learnt.

            In reflecting on my childhood it is clear that the so called anti-racists were the ones which accelerated me to the status of racist.

            I do not hate or dislike people of color, they are human beings just like me…

            However, it is important to consider racial differences.

            Universally, the level of civilization achieved has corresponded with the intelligence of its inhabitants.

            Did the civilization of 60 IQ aboriginal Australians reach the same level of civilization as say the Asians (94-108) Arabs (80-86) Caucasoids (96-104)? No, even though they had the resources required…

            The moment people realize these basic race realities is the moment people will realize that affirmative action is a bad idea, as is expecting third world populations to successfully integrate in first world societies…

            The only way integration could work is through racial mixing…

            The black IQ will increase if it continually breeds with a subset of the populations belonging to the high IQ races (Caucasoid, etc) except the Bible is against race mixing so I do not think that I would support that.

          • Hey random guy,
            When we want to privilege a particular point of view, there is never a shortage of evidence. We make meaning at least in part by pattern matching and so filtering evidence in such a way to filter for our confirmation bias is natural and easy to do without noticing. in fact it is a default position for most of us.

            I have a bias against many of the popular ideas about civilisation and intelligence favoured in western society. I developed a different perspective over many years recording cultural stories with traditional people in remote Australia. Many have english as a fourth or fifth language, have the ability to recall thousands of stories and songs, find water and food by reading the landscape and the behaviour of birds and animals, and over the campfire sitting in the dirt waiting for the billy to boil for a cup of tea, one of the most frequent conversations that comes up is, “What does it mean to be a human being?” , “What does it means to be a free.”

            I have heard it said so often, ” I feel sorry for piranpa (white fellas). They have no kinship, they have no songs and stories handed down from the beginning of human memory, they have no country that is part of them. All they have is what is written on paper, things that can be changed on a whim, things that blow away in the wind.” “We have everything you need for a good life. We have our family, our stories, our songs, our law from the beginning. Everyone born in this country is part of that, even if they don’t know it. But if they want we can show them so that they can learn too.”

            I once asked an old man, “Why is it that so many Aboriginal people are so interested in Christianity. You have your law, you have your tjukurpa, you have your country. Why is it?”

            He looked at me as if I didn’t know anything and said, “It’s because God gave us our Tjukurpa before he gave white man the Bible.”

            In my view, the Fall in the Garden of Eden was not the fall into knowledge of good and evil, though of course in part it was, but more to the point, it was the fall from innocence that privileged knowledge, experience and wisdom and into a world that privileged wealth, maintained by violence that set out to colonise the world.

            So random guy, we have much in common, but not so much our attitude towards the different geniuses inherent in different groups of people. I wish you well and hope you find what you are most looking for.

  • Milonga Magic

    I felt the writer’s pain in this piece. I really did. The essay not only provoked me to respond, but it also prompted me to take on broader themes below. Good writing does this. Thank you Miguel.

    Firstly, I believe people of color in white dominated systems can only push for equal rights through lobbying for more inclusive legislation and policies. This is hard enough work. Hoping for love or acceptance or inclusion from white America is not necessary. I think collectively the diaspora needs to move towards self acceptance and unlearning Eurocentric programming whether that happened via watching whitewashed television or reading whitewashed history books. We need to create our own educational institutions, businesses and social organizations that are created by us to be consumed by us. Art isn’t the only thing that’s going to get that done, although yes, poetry and music are important too.

    We need to buy land in Africa and invest there too. (Ever heard of the young innovator Arthur Zang from Cameroon?) And yes, we also need to invest in our neighborhoods and support our own business community, however challenging this may be. This lamenting the past and white America’s current ills towards people of color is a necessary outflow, but it doesn’t move us forward. The way the white world sees me (or any other person of color) is not a weight I want to carry. Why should we carry this burden or be concerned about writing essays to white people? There’s far too much work to be done for our own.

    I sense that the writer is weary. I am weary too, although I am much younger. Furthermore, I can’t imagine what it must have been like for someone of color to come of age in the 60s and 70s. But I believe it is this collective weariness that burdens us. It is this collective burden about the past that gets passed on from generation to generation, which I believe prevents a large segment of our young people from seeing all the opportunities around them that does not require white validation or permission. But how do we shake off the shackles of victimhood?

    China is a culturally and economically insular country. Even when their people migrate to the US (for example), they tend to stick together working for their own collective advancement. We (the diaspora) could learn a lot from that example, I think. I know it is a far more complex business for black people in America to work together because we are all so different and unlike the Chinese diaspora, we do not have a single country to unify around. But perhaps we need to work harder at defining our own culture, remembering that our origin story began long before we were shackled and under the tyranny of white imagination. Our story does not begin in America. And we don’t just need to write our own history books to tout these truths, we need poetry too. We also need to develop our own programming that’s fun and engaging and depicts the many segments of black life that isn’t reality TV buffoonery. (Thankfully, the latter is already being done by young creatives such as Issa Rae.) We have so much to do and learn. I mean, Hidden Colors was a revelation and how many of us knew about that story? Forget the “white savior” aspect of that movie for a minute and just focus on those women. They were pioneers! How much more are we missing?

    But back to the Chinese diaspora. I wonder how many Chinese Americans lament the lack of representation on TV or the lack of representation in Congress (for example). I’m sure many do as they’re largely under represented in both areas, but I think historically, Chinese Americans have been far too busy building economic power.

    Shouldn’t we?

  • Luisa

    Dr. Mallet,
    Thank you for an important essay, one which enlightens me, but, perhaps not for the worse, also saddens me.

    I’m a white woman, born in the 60’s to an Italian mom and Russian dad (well, to be accurate, Ukrainian). Dad immigrated here at age 12 with the clothes on his back and a single suitcase, with his parents, who were sponsored by a church community in southwest Virginia.

    I was raised with Christian (Catholic) values. My parents were and are not racist. They were, if anything, “outsiders” themselves. Stereotypes and derogatory impressions of “foreigners” were in those days not rare. I know a little about being on the receiving end of exclusion, through rare and cautious observations (kids see everything, do they not?) of my parents.

    So, I was taught. I was taught that American is a choice. To come to America, to study for and take the US Citizenship exam was a privilege and honor. And, once an American, there was no need or room for divisiveness. America was, for my parents, a fresh start and a place to be…better. To escape segregationism, racism, war.

    I felt the same nausea as a child watching Roots as watching The Hiding Place. Both literally sickened me, made lasting impressions, and strengthened my personal resolve to fight the narrow and cruel ideologies of the world. I, lily white, a child of the 60’s, did not know, understand, or feel hate or superiority over others. I was, as a kid living briefly on Guam, a “victim” of racism as I was one of two “Howlies”(whites) in my grade school. I was punched. I was taunted. But fortunately, I had more friends (of color) than enemies, and so … it did not define me. It defined the bullies as bullies.

    I was actually saddened in college to see certain self-segregated fraternities and sororities , clubs, parties. And please, everyone, there is no need to school me on real need for some of this exclusiveness; I do understand. But. I was an American! We are United! I didn’t like what I saw and felt.

    If only it were more simple. To see a person as a person. To mentally discard from each of our lives those who are prejudiced, mean, small minded. If only we could educate those who simply were not taught to do unto others…. and to reeducate those of us taught to live in mentally dark caves, understanding only our own small life spheres.

    For my parents….United. United States. A United people. That’s what America represented. Naive? Perhaps. But what are we if we don’t buy into that great and noble dream? When you speak of group power, you are isolating me, Dr. Mallet. And there, you’ve lost me.

    Please do not make the same assumptions about me that you propose are being made about an entire group (of color). You are describing a monster that simply does not live in me, or in those whom I respect or hold dearest.

    Finally, though perhaps obvious, I’ll admit my own naivitee. I’ll continue to try to see a person as a person and not as an entity, ideology, or worse, an enemy. I’ll look at every person as an individual, regardless of their color, race, religion, political slant, etc. etc.

    I hope with all my heart, mind, and soul, and for us, as Americans, that we remain united. It will continue to be difficult work. Divided, we fall.

  • Just My Opinion

    Thank you, Mr. Mallet, for these powerful words. The concept of race as something other than our shared humanity is, in itself, a figment of our imagination. Whenever and wherever this imagining began, this is the time and place to erase it.

  • grn1 Created by Eric Monte and Mike Evans, and developed by Norman Lear, Many images or “imagination” stem from our communities, our exposure to media’s images, and males political and cultural racism. Dr. DiAngelo’s statistics read about the same for women. Breaking the glass ceiling means not buying into the cultures who presented these ideas over and over again especially through media images. Textbooks especially history, in public schools should be taken into account so exploitation through domination are not revered.

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  • I think children, by and large, see sameness over difference. There are many things that loom large than skin colour or hair colour or eye colour for that matter.

    I heard the story from an old man who grew up in the central desert of Australia, when as a boy, he saw a white man for the first time. The man was riding a horse and came toward the boy. The boy thought, “Look at that poor man someone has him alive, it must really hurt. And where did he get that tame giant dingo to ride?”

    He interpreted what he say in the light of his past experience. It’s all any of us can do. We cannot know what we have not yet learnt. Before that we experience oneness, undifferentiated. Learning to name things, categorise things and then form judgements on them comes later. It cannot be otherwise, except for intuition. Now that is a whole other story.

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