A first in a two-part series on the death of Whiteness
by Mohammad Mia; illustration by Eileen Kitrick
Webmaster's note: the author crossed out each instance of the word "white" in this article. Due to Squarespace limitations, I cannot use strikethroughs. Please use your imagination.
My body does not belong. This truth cowers beneath the shroud of self-preservation that is threatened in my presence and secured through my absence. Whether American patriotism in the wake of 9/11 as I’m called a “terrorist sand nigger,” or Yik-Yak anonymity telling me to go back to where I’ve never been and could never return—for you have plundered it of its wealth, destroyed it of its culture, robbed what you enjoyed and called it your own.
I do not belong. It is an unpleasant truth hidden in your delicate deeds and words. It is the economics professor who comments that I must be a trust fund baby, for how else could I walk with such pride and self-assurance? It is the look of eyes darting over shoulders, staring with fascination and fear as their quickened footsteps pass me in the night. It is the kiss of a woman lying beside me in bed as I dare to ask what attracted her to me. Without hesitation she responds, “I’m attracted to foreign guys.” My stomach tightens as she kisses my skin, a veil descending between her world and mine as I wonder if I should feel special or repulsed. The abnormality of my being is never stated. Yet your divided house betrays itself in a body forever asking of me, “What does it feel like to be a problem?”
Colorado College is a White institution. It has been this way since its inception and it will continue as such in perpetuity. It is white in the composition of its student body, white in its faculty and staff, White in its ideological foundation and White in its claim to the land upon which it has been built. Never in the history of Colorado College has the institution not been a predominantly White one, nor will it ever be otherwise. Colorado College could not be Colorado College as we understand it today if this were to ever change.
Since its founding in 1874, Colorado College has cultivated its ideal community by structuring a residential college around an insular perspective of White Ethnocentrism. “A liberal education requires the internalization and identification of a Protestant, Anglo-Saxon masculinity infused with Enlightenment ideas about self, individuation and universal good,” writes Ana Martinez-Aleman, a Boston College professor of education. As Colorado College pushes towards diversity, these foundations will be challenged, because the voice of the liberal arts did not account for voices from the margins it so effortlessly ignores. Whiteness is the unspoken natural that sees without ever being seen. The development of identity as a person of color cannot be understood without situating it within the unspoken context of Whiteness within which it has developed.
* * *
It was freshman year. The excitement of novelty hung heavy in the air and permeated each event and interaction. We exchanged numbers, anxious for friendship. We crossed campus in droves, afraid to feel our body separate from the world. We packed ourselves in rooms heavy with the scent of beer and cheap shots. We threw ourselves into dark rooms with sticky floors and loud music. “This is college,” I thought to myself.
I was not drinking then. My father’s childhood was a testament to the horrors of alcohol and I feared that I would destroy myself. House parties are a surreal experience in a sober state. Garish garb and faces contorted into smiles absent from their eyes. I made my way out of the blackness of the dance floor, where bodies rubbed against me as I pushed past to the living room. The floor was still sticky, but the lights were on and I could see faces once more. I spoke to another freshman. We clung to the walls in a stupor at the spectacle before our eyes, neither of us betraying our discomfort. I saw a woman and figured I would ask her to dance. I walked over, feet heavy with fear as the floor swallowed them with each step. She saw me and I her. I smiled.
“Would you like to dance?”
She turned to her friend for a moment then to me. I felt the palm of her hand strike my face. It was not the slap of my mother when I spoke back to her. It was not the playful slap of a friend as we sparred. It was a slap reminding me I would always be staring upon a world they would never allow me to enter.
Her friend pulled her aside and apologized on her behalf. I felt others eyes upon me. Their bodies recoiled as their eyes wondered what I must have done. It has never ceased to amaze me the mental gymnastics a mind exerts when faced with the irrational. Maybe she has a boyfriend. Maybe it was how I asked her. Maybe she misinterpreted what I said. Maybe it was me. Who was I to ask a white woman to dance?
I stumbled into the night, shots of tequila stinging my throat as the party’s siren song drew me toward my destruction. I had been swallowed by the blackness of the room, the heaviness of sweat hung in the air as they grinded offbeat in dark corners and repeated a word whose history they had forgotten.
I stepped onto the balcony. He called my name. It felt harsh in his mouth, a cruel tone calling for my destruction. I turned to face him. He looked like any other: eyes hateful and speech slurred, body stumbling as his finger pushed into me.
“Fuck you, asshole. You forgot my friend’s name.”
I didn’t know him. Who was his friend?
“You sit next to him in class, you’re a fucking asshole for forgetting him.”
I didn’t know his friend. I didn’t know why he knew me.
I felt his rage as his finger dug into my flesh, my back pressed to the rail of the balcony. I knew he could destroy my body. That I could fall and feel my body break on a ground where so many bodies like my own had been erased. Reduced from love and hope to blood and cracked bones. He would be excused, just as his country had been excused for the bodies broken to build his Dream. I felt the anger I had been taught to forget. The anger I hid beneath my calm demeanor so they would allow me here. I wanted to break him. Yet I knew the consequences would be far harsher for me. His presence was a necessity and mine merely an expendable luxury. He was surrounded by other drunken teammates, their hatred indistinguishable from one another. I knew they would fall upon my body and then claim their own defense. I knew they would make sure I never forgot their names. Who was I to forget a white man’s name?
I felt caged, caught in the constricted construction of an identity that had come to be a cavern between how others knew me and how I knew myself.
By sophomore year I was known across campus. Contained in a suit and tie caricature that heightened my visibility as my humanity was hidden, viewed but never seen. I had to escape. Colorado was killing me. Either I would perish in a persona fashioned for a people who could only ever accept me with lukewarm apprehension or my rage would destroy one of them.
I fled to Chicago, the mecca of authenticity my idols had called home. I felt it the first night as I stepped onto snow-covered streets after watching the Seahawks win the Super Bowl. The wind bit at my neck as Lake Michigan’s waters stirred. This was home.
* * *
“Just be yourself.” Her words struck me with as much confusion as they did anxiety at the sheer terror of being myself. She was a student in my Chicago program. Her radical self-acceptance and love intimidated me. She knew who she was and made no attempt at hiding it. She loved the curves of a body she had been taught could not be beautiful. She laughed as though no shackles could hold the sound of her joy. She did not fear when tears carved her cheeks and anger welled in her eyes.
I needed her to ask a question. I did not know who she wanted me to be without a question. Which side did she want to see? What did she want to hear? Who did she want me to be? I needed her to ask what I could not answer for myself. She wouldn’t play along and simply repeated her words: “Be yourself.”
The boundaries of my being broadened beneath sounds of the red line rushing above my head, deepened in the dense death haunting neighborhood corners, and blossomed in the beauty of bodies that dared to be what had been denied them so long. I heard it in the breathless screams of fear and rage as Kanye declared himself a god. I could hear them then. Who did he think he was? A black man a god? A man whose ancestors were brought in chains and who’s skin is dark as night. Everyone knows god is white.
Junior year was Miles Davis’s melancholy on “Blue in Green” as I fell apart before the train tracks of D.C.’s Tenleytown station. It was silence as I sat above the clouds of Paris’s Monteverde, having just turned 20. The weight of ancestors in my blood, the struggles of parents upon my shoulders, life after attempted suicides, and now I stand like a god above the clouds. It was the yellowed dog-eared copy of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” tucked in my back pocket as I wandered Paris.
I lost myself in the anonymity of cities, speaking to strangers and becoming familiar with alienation. I created myself each time I entered a bus, destroyed myself as I stepped off a plane and birthed myself on pages of journals that captured the passage of time and self. I looked upon myself with intimate detachment. Concerned not with who I was or what I am, who I had been or what I was, but only the question of who am I and who did I want to be? Could I be someone I loved even if all I encountered despised me? Could I be someone that loved what he saw in the mirror because he knew how hard he struggled to be? Could I say what was true even when it flew in the face of the lies I was taught to tell? Could I have the courage to be the person I knew I was not supposed to be?
* * *
“Hello brother, how are you?” His familiar warmth seemed foreign and distant in light of what my heart held. I returned to Colorado for senior year a changed man, calling many of my relationships into question.
He asked where we’d be walking. It didn’t matter, I said. Our friendship ended long before and this walk was the coup de grace that my conscience had compelled me towards. I believed I owed him the courtesy of ending a friendship in person, rather than disappearing as I’ve done to so many other white students this year, more often for the benefit of their fragility than my own. Our feet crossed gray concrete sidewalks covered in white snow. He asked where this sudden severing of ties came from, a possibility his own whiteness had precluded him from ever foreseeing. I did not have the words. My entire life has been a fight to find the words to be understood, believing that if only I had the right metaphor or simile, perhaps then they would understand what has separated me from the world.
I struggled to speak on something I myself had not yet come to understand entirely, but had felt my entire life. His drug dealing was problematic and he lacked integrity and honesty, yet these were symptoms of something else. He patronized me with the promise of reconciling after I “worked through this.” He considered “this” to be irrational and impulsive. As though he had not spent four years observing the effort I invested in my every thought and action. As though I were not free to determine who I trusted and called a friend. As though friendship were a realm of domination rather than one of freedom to choose for one’s self. As though I could not tell him that we were no longer friends. I knew it was over, though I wondered if it had ever begun.
I stewed on these questions for the next two blocks of my thesis. The question of how White Supremacy is rooted in an epistemology of ignorance. To be white is to be unable to examine Whiteness. If Socrates states that the unexamined life is not worth living, it would follow that the unexamined Whiteness cannot be alive. As Ellison writes, there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers. How often they bump into my body on this campus and apologize for not seeing me.
I searched for the word relentlessly. The library became a place of freedom from chains I had never known I carried. Each book broadened my understanding of the borders that had been erected between the world and me. How do you speak to someone about what they cannot understand? Cannot understand because it threatens all meaning they have built their life upon. All meaning they have constructed their hopes upon. A meaning they have lived without ever interrogating its denial of another.
I returned to the question of the friendship I had ended in an attempt to articulate what I was experiencing. I focused on the identities we carried in our interactions. Friend. Friend. White. Brown. Upper class. Low income. Drug dealer. Drug addict. I reached out and asked if we could walk once more.
I stepped out Saturday morning and regretted not wearing a coat. We plodded through the pleasantries of small talk, neither of us committed to the illusion that all was good.
“Why did you want to go for a walk?” he asked.
I’ve always appreciated candidness, for the robbery of time is perhaps the greatest treachery. When one exists in a body that has known the threat of destruction, the fragility of life tinges every moment with a sense of urgency. One must resist at every moment the pull of Whiteness to rob you further of what little time you have been given. It is lunch with a person you do not care to speak to. It is your body sitting on a panel where it is seen but never heard. It is sitting in classes for 14 years and being taught to hate yourself.
“Why do you sell drugs?” I asked.
It was a social affair, he said. Clearly it had never been about the money for him. I doubt he could ever know the desperation of those for whom dealing is survival. I questioned the problem of being social with students of color by selling them drugs. He saw nothing of it. They wanted drugs and he had them—it was their choice after all.
Could you be friends with a dealer or were you just a glorified customer? Would a friend sell you drugs? He fit into a larger history of White economic exploitation. Who flooded New York City streets with crack and left behind the wreckage of families in its wake? Who introduced alcohol to Indian reservations and left legacies of abuse and addiction? Why are black and brown bodies sent to prison for small amounts of marijuana while white men open dispensaries and profit from legalization?
I was being unreasonable, he said. He was an individual and I should grant him that privilege. Individualism allows one to forget the body as it pleases. He was white when he called himself an ally and reaped the social benefits it accorded white individuals. He was white when he spoke about why social justice is so important. He was white when he attended Black Student Union meetings. Yet he was not white when he economically exploited students of color, many of whom already came from financially disadvantaged backgrounds. He was not white when he nurtured a psychological dependency in students of color struggling against the racist atmosphere of Colorado College. He was not white when he pacified the rage and anger of students of color rather than using his privilege to rage against the very conditions that drove them to such desperation. He was white when it was beneficial and forgot it when it wasn’t.
I do not deny my responsibility in the choice to use drugs. I do not deny the many mornings spent getting high before I showered—rushing to my room when class ended just to make it through the afternoon, ending my days getting high simply so I could fall asleep. I do not deny any of these choices, yet I will not blind myself to the social context that drove me towards these choices: white friends who doubted my sanity as I articulated racist experiences and they dismissed them as overthinking; witnessing a man die before me on the streets of Paris as white students celebrated cheap wine; the recurring lies one must tell themselves in order to be social and have friends; the looming awareness that death is promised to all who question the legitimacy of White Supremacy. Hampton: 21, Tupac: 25, Malcolm: 39, Huey: 47, and the many more nameless and lost.
But if I must bear the weight of responsibility for my choices, then so too must the dealer. Whiteness denies its responsibility in proclaiming that it never chose to be born into a white body, as if anyone chose to be born into the body that they did. I did not choose to be born into my body, yet I must still learn to exist within a reality where it may be destroyed, broken or forgotten in the black pit of a prison. You did not choose your body, yet you bear the responsibility of a reality that can destroy my body when it pleases.
The limit of his understanding was reached by our fourth circling of the track. I was food for thought. An intellectual foray into an idea he had never considered and would likely never consider again. My fingers were blue from the cold. Snow fell and the Whiteness that hid itself became visible. We parted with a hug. A little less tight. A bit more distant. A lot less forgiving.
I have ended friendships this year. I have told white individuals what they did not want to hear and felt their wrath as I watched meaning slip from their lives. I am not your brochure model minority here to assuage your white guilt, to thank you for attending a BSU meeting or a Butler Center dialogue. I have stopped responding to your texts. You press me to explain and then cry when my truth is harsh upon ears conditioned for falsehood. Do not cry to me of your confusion and astonishment, your moral outrage and disgust, your pity and your support. I do not care. I will not award you a trophy for being human. I will not smile in your face for a #BlackLivesMatter status. I will not erase my existence to make you feel comfortable. As hard as you work to deny it, my body will belong.
You run from this. Flying into a fantasy as white as the mountains on your pilgrimage of privilege. You tremble at truth, shaken at what you believe me to be saying. You crumble with cowardice. For in the presence of my body the meaning of yours feels absent. It is questioned. It is broken. It is destroyed. You are tossed into the abyss and you curse me for it. You cling to King’s message of love and hope, all the while advocating for a negative peace that is the absence of tension rather than the presence of justice.
When the abnormal is presented as normal, the extraordinary is hidden in the ordinary and lies are disguised as the truth. Then to be honest, to be courageous and to write what is true in one’s heart is the most radical act of love. The owl of Minerva has flown; the scent of carrion is carried in the wind; ravens circle from a distance waiting to descend upon a body clinging to its last breath. Whiteness is dead. Will humanity be born?