This past summer I read Lois Benjamin’s book The Black Elite (check out my Recommended Reading list) and in it she quotes a story written by Arthur Hoppe, a white columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. The story was published in 1968 in the midst of the black civil rights movement.
In the story of “Little Black Tombo,” the title character, an enslaved boy, wants “to be free, to be equal and to be a man.” So a group of characters known as “some Nice White People” set out to help Tombo achieve his goals. First, they change the laws and offer him freedom from slavery. But Tombo still doesn’t feel equal to them. Then, they help him secure an education. To no avail, though with education, Tombo decides to change his name to “Tom.” Then, they change the laws to allow Tom to purchase a home in their neighborhoods. That still doesn’t work. And so, they conclude,
“The problem,” said some Nice White People, “is sociological. You must dress like us, talk like us, and think like us. Then, obviously, you will be equal to us.”
Tom does all this, and while he is never accepted as an equal of the Nice White People, he does get invited to their cocktail parties and asked to share his opinion “but only about racial matters” as the story goes.
Reading through this story made me think about the work I’ve been doing in examining the ways in which people of color perform whiteness in order to gain and maintain privilege in our society. When I wrote my article on whiteness for ITLWTLP, I was saddened by the number of POC, most of whom enjoying some privilege or other, who responded so defensively to the idea that performing whiteness is a natural part of our defense in a racially-charged world. They wanted to believe that their ability to enjoy the fruits of their hard work and boot-strap-pulling was solely a matter of their own innate, racially neutral, color-blind efforts.
And I get that. I used to feel the same way. But the fact is that, like Little Black Tombo, we all reach the point in this white supremacist world when we realize we have to be a person of color-but-not-too-much-color in order to get ahead. We have our own well-intentioned, liberal-leaning, self-proclaimed allies of Nice White People subtly encouraging us to “dress like [them], talk like [them], and think like [them].” And when it’s necessary, we do just that.
There’s nothing wrong with being a POC performing whiteness for self-preservation. At least, there’s nothing wrong in the sense of self-blame or shame for POC. We live in the world of white supremacy, and we do what we must to survive. In the black community, we are often taught the importance of wearing “The Mask” to get in the door and up the ladder, so that once we’re there, we can change things up and make things better for everyone else.
And that’s the key. We perform whiteness without shame because we’re answering to a higher calling, if you will; we’re doing so for reasons that reach beyond ourselves. It’s one of many strategies in our mission to force change in our white supremacist world. So, while I perform whiteness without shame to move up in the world, as I move to each new level, I also shout out against the white supremacy that requires my performance in the first place. It’s a multi-level approach in my radicalism. Each level I clear, I strive to make less racist for the next person coming through in the hope that the need for performing whiteness can be done away with altogether.
One last note: It’s important to realize that performing whiteness and having privilege are not the same. We, as POC, can have privilege on our own merit. We’re smart and charismatic and talented and brilliant people. We don’t have to be white for that. But in some cases, in far too many cases, we have to perform whiteness in order to have our smarts, charisma, talent, and brilliance fully recognized. We can work hard and gain privilege, be it financial or educational or something else. But more often than not, we have to perform whiteness successfully to be able to enjoy the fruits of that hard-won privilege.
So, we do. For now. But the struggle continues and the struggle is real. And with the way things have been going lately, they’re probably only going to get worse before they get better.
By the way, in the end of the story, Tom changes his name to “Tombo X,” grows a beard, wears dark glasses, and shouts, “Black is beautiful” before hitting a couple of the Nice White People over the head. When they complain with “deeply hurt” white feelings, the response goes,
“It’s funny,” said Tombo X, smiling, “but at last I feel like a man.”