I recently encountered a letter James Baldwin wrote to Angela Davis in 1970 in reference to a Newsweek cover story. I have been mulling over it since. In particular, I was struck by this:
White people will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never — the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.
Baldwin is among the more prominent people of African descent who have held the mirror up to people who, as he says, “believe they are white.” Again and again, he offers critical insight coupled with an abiding awareness that despite the ways white society thwarts and diminishes the lives of peoples of color, we are family.
In this moment of uprising among people of African descent, white people in this country are being invited again to awaken to the reality Baldwin named in that 1970 letter:
What the Americans do not realize is that a war between brothers, in the same cities, on the same soil is not a racial war but a civil war.
I keep asking myself what it means for white people to love ourselves and each other. Isn’t it strange to be asked to consider this when the very foundation of whiteness is the belief that white people and our way of life are superior? It seems so counter intuitive. It would seem that we white people DO love ourselves. If racism is the preferential treatment of white people by white people, systematized into law, policy and practice, wouldn’t it follow that we love ourselves above all others?
But love is a bonding force, not an alienating one. If we white people really loved ourselves, we would not associate negative human qualities with “the other.” We would stop insisting that we are “good” while “others” are criminal, threatening and violent. We would not insist on our innocence and disassociate ourselves from the complexity of our own humanity.
US society is built on the premise that white people are more deserving than others. But it is impossible to love ourselves and others in “our group,” while we build empires based on deceit, betrayal and violence in order to shore up benefits and immunities reserved only for ourselves. As long as our lifestyle and ideologies are predicated on delusion, we cannot love ourselves because we know – if only unconsciously – that we are living an unfathomable lie. In our hearts and bones, we know that all human beings belong to each other.
In his 1984 essay in Essence “On Being White and Other Lies,” Baldwin wrote, “Because they think they are white, they believe, as even no child believes, in the dream of safety.” To love ourselves, we white people would come to see and accept both our brilliance and our meanness. We would come to own our “darkness” as well as our “light.” We would come to acknowledge that our way of life is dependent on violence and oppression and give up our “right” to relative ease, comfort, security and safety.
Only then might we love ourselves and each other. Only then would we no longer need to be “white.”