Disowning the Lie of Whiteness

Steven Singer is a husband, father, teacher and education advocate.

The most vivid memory I have of my great-grandfather is the tattoo on his arm.

It wasnt an anchor or a sweethearts name or even the old faithful, Mom.

It was just a series of digits scrawled across his withered tan flesh like someone had written a note they didnt want to forget.

Beneath the copious salt and pepper hairs was a stark number, the darkest stain on his skin.

Gramps is a kindly figure in my mind.

He died before I was even 10-years-old. All I really remember about him are wisps of impressions his constant smile, a whiff of mothballs, how he always seemed to have butterscotch candies.

And that tattoo.

I think it was my father who told me what it meant.

When he was just a young man, Gramps escaped from Auschwitz. A guard took pity on him and smuggled him out.

His big European family didnt make it.

My scattered relatives in the United States are all that are left of us.

Those are the only details that have come down to me. And Gramps isnt here to add anything further.

But his tattoo has never left me.

Its become a pillar of my subconscious.

The fact that someone could look at my kindly Gramps and still see fit to tattoo a numeric signifier on him as if he were an animal.

A little reminder that he wasnt human, that he shouldnt be treated like a person, that he was marked for erasure.

If I look at my own arm, there is no tell-tale integer peeking through the skin. But I am keenly aware of its presence.

I know that its there in a very real sense.

It is only the American dream that hides it.

Coming to this country, my family has made a deal, something of a Faustian bargain, but its one that most of us have accepted as the price of admission.

Its called whiteness.

I am white.

Or I get to be white. So long as I suppress any differences to the contrary.

I agree to homogenize myself as much as possible and define myself purely by that signifier.

White. American. No hyphen necessary.

Anything else is secondary. I dont have to deny it, but I have to keep it hidden until the right context comes to bring it out.

During Octoberfest I have license to be German. When at international village I can root for Poland. And on Saturdays I can wear a Kippah and be Jewish.

But in the normal flow of life, dont draw attention to my differences. Dont show everyone the number on my arm.

Because America is a great place, but people here as in many other places are drawn to those sorts of symbols and will do what they can to stamp them out.

I learned that in school when I was younger.

There werent a lot of Jewish kids where I grew up. I remember lots of cracks about Jewing people down, fighting against a common assumption that I would be greedy, etc. I remember one girl I had a crush on actually asked to see my horns.

And of course there were the kids who chased me home from the bus stop. The scratched graffiti on my locker: Yid.

The message was clear Youre different. Well put up with you, but dont ever forget you are NOT one of us.

There were a lot more black kids. They didnt get it any easier but at least they could join together.

It seemed I had one choice assimilate or face it alone.

So I did. I became white.

I played up my similarities, never talked about my differences except to close friends.

And America worked her magic.

So Ive always been aware that whiteness is the biggest delusion in the world.

Its not a result of the color wheel. Look at your skin. Youre not white. Youre peach or pink or salmon or rose or coral or olive or any of a million other shades.

Whiteness has as much to do with color as Red has to do with Communism or Green has to do with environmental protection.

It is the way a lose confederacy of nationalities and ethnicities have banded together to form a fake majority and lord power over all those theyve excluded.

Its social protection for wealth a kind of firewall against the underclass built, manned and protected by those who are also being exploited.

Its like a circle around the wealthy protecting them from everyone outside its borders. Yet if everyone banded together against the few rich and powerful, we could all have a more equitable share.

But in America, social class has been weaponized and racialized.

Youll see some media outlets talking about demographics as if white people were in danger of losing their numerical majority in this country in the next few decades. But theres no way its ever going to happen.

Todays xenophobia is a direct response to this challenge. Some are trying to deport, displace and murder as many black and brown people as possible to preserve the status quo.

But even if that doesnt work, whiteness will not become a minority. It will do what it has always done incorporate some of those whom it had previously excluded to keep its position.

Certain groups of Hispanics and Latinos probably will find themselves allowed to identify as white, thereby solidifying the majority.

Because the only thing that matters is that there are some people who are white and the rest who are not.

Long ago, my family experienced this.

Before I was born, we got our provisional white card. And if I want, I can use it to hide behind.

Ive been doing it most of my life.

Every white person does it.

Its almost impossible not to do it.

How do you deny being white?

At this point, I could throw back my head and shout to the heavens, IM NOT WHITE! and it wouldnt matter.

Only in a closed environment like a school or a job or in a social media circle can you retain the stigma of appearing pale but still being other.

In everyday life, it doesnt matter what you say, only how you appear.

I cant shout my difference all the time. Every moment Im quiet, Ill still be seen as white.

Its not personal. Its social. Its not something that happens among individuals. Its a way of being seen.

The best I can do is try to use my whiteness as a tool. I can speak out against the illusion. I can stand up when people of color are being victimized. I can vote for leaders who will do something to dismantle white supremacy.

Not because I am some kind of savior, but because I know that my own freedom is tied to the freedom of those being oppressed by a system that provides me certain privileges.

But let me be clear: doing so is not the safe way to go.

In defending others you make yourself a target.

I get threats all the time from racists and Nazis of all sorts. They say they can tell just by looking at me that Im not white at all.

The worst part is Im not sure what I am anymore.

I dont go to synagogue. I dont even believe in God. But Im Jewish enough to have been rounded up like Gramps was, so I wont deny that identity. Its just that Im more than one thing.

Thats what whiteness tries to reduce you to one thing.

I dont want it anymore.

Im not saying I dont like the protection, the ability to be anonymous, the easy out.

But its not worth it if it has to come with the creation of an other.

I dont want to live in a world where people of color are considered less than me and mine.

I dont want to live in a world where they can be treated unfairly, beaten and brutalized so that I can get some special advantage.

I dont want to live in a world where human beings are tattooed and numbered and sent to their deaths.

Because the Holocaust is not over.

American slavery is not over.

Neither is Jim Crow or lynching or a thousand other marks of hatred and bigotry.

Nazis march unmasked in our streets. Our prisons are the new plantation. And too many of our police use murder and atrocity to ensure the social order.

As long as we allow ourselves to be white, there will be no justice for both ourselves and others.

So consider this my renunciation of whiteness and I make it here in public.

I know that no matter what I say, I will still be seen as part of the problem. And I will still reap the rewards.

But I will use what power is given me to tear it down.

Im burning my white card.

I know its a symbolic gesture. But I invite my white brothers and sisters to add theirs to the flames.

Let us make a conflagration, a pillar of fire into the sky.

Let whiteness evaporate as the smoke it is.

Let us revel in the natural hues of our faces as we watch it burn.

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