Hey white man! Embodying, performing, and decommissioning whiteness

Calling out to me – as I walk around in a Ghanaian marketplace: “White man!”

The tone is not negative, it might even be positive. The caller is naming something that I embody and something that I symbolize in this place. Perhaps the caller is inviting engagement with that part of me. Whether I like it or not, I embody whiteness. I have been asked many times if I would switch skins with random people I meet. That’s not a request most white folk have had.

This weekend I will be attending an event centered on Biblical performance and our theme is “thinking about embodiment.” What does my body communicate? To many people, I embody white. But an insightful question I have heard being asked these days is, how did we become white?

That question is pointing out “white” is a construct, not an ethnicity. It is cultural, not just genetic. Historically being white is not as indelible as it seems. My ancestors started a process of becoming white when they came to the USA, long before I arrived in one of the markets of northern Ghana.

For instance, when my Finnish paternal grandfather left his Finnish speaking home in Minnesota he went to seminary.  As he learned theology he also learned how to better “perform” being a white American Lutheran, in addition to being a Finnish-American. He learned how to make the second half of the hyphen stronger than the first. That was pretty much true for all European ethnic groups. And over generations, for many of us, the first half of that hyphen became more culturally diluted. But not without traces!

My cousins and I have heard the story of how my grandfather, who was several years older than my grandmother, saw her singing in a choir. He declared he would marry her one day. Our Finnish-American grandmother, whose first language was already English, performed American whiteness in a way my grandfather aspired to. My grandfather’s siblings, some of whom stayed nearer to home, also became “white.” Instead of Finnish accents, they are perceived to have “northern Minnesotan” accents, which still marks a measure of difference in the larger US landscape of whiteness. But no matter how you cut it, my extended paternal family all integrated into dominant society. It was probably inevitable.

One could also look at my maternal grandparents’ history. Both my grandfather and my grandmother were ethnically German (mostly). They were both English speakers from childhood. Both of their families struggled mightily just to make it financially. It was hard, especially for my grandmother’s family because her father, a pastor, was sick for quite a long time, and ended up passing away with the children still in the house. Within a very short time, my great-grandmother and her children were sent out of the parsonage they lived in and expected to find a way to make it on their own. And they did. Being “white” was one advantage they were sure to use.

So whiteness in America was a tool to use for survival for many poor immigrant families. You had to know how to perform whiteness to get and keep jobs, to get better homes, to get into college. Performance was connected to language and how you carried yourself. But Americans are known for their short cultural memory.  What was a survival tool can quickly become a birthright, a privilege that you protect and defend in the cut-throat economy which is the reality in this country—if you want a middle-class job and lifestyle.

Whether I like it or not, whiteness, American whiteness, is a part of what being a missionary has meant for me. It is not a survival tool in the way it was for my ancestors. Whiteness is something I embody. Is it something I am perceived to be selling in the market as I walk around? It is part of my package. But I always enjoy saying something in the local language or asking a question in a very Ghanaian way which skews how I “perform” whiteness in Ghana.

Someone might say, “You have been here too long. You are not a fresh white person.” My fellow white missionaries and I took this as a complement. We were making whiteness more hybrid, more Ghanaian, as we sought to engage with others. In Ghana, this was often perceived as a good thing, at least among the ordinary folk in the marketplaces. If you see me with my missionary colleagues we enjoy speaking in our Ghanaian tone of voice. It is life-giving to us.

I recently read an excerpt about “decommissioning whiteness” written by a Nigerian scholar, Boyo Akomolafe. He has a part in there which resonates with me, even though I don’t fully understand it. He is talking about the important racial healing work that needs to happen in the USA, and he says it will not happen on CNN, or from the White house, it will happen in the cracks and borders of society.

I think of this work – this utterly incoherent murmuration of platforms and practices and concerns and offerings – as a decommissioning of whiteness. I think of it as the regeneration of spaces for us to grieve, to celebrate, to eat together, and to learn anew how to relate to the world around us. This decommissioning of whiteness is decolonization. A reacquainting ourselves with roots – the tentacular things that tether us to terra firma, which we like Icarus believed ourselves to be free of. Let us remember that whiteness was/is the invitation to forget roots, to deny the significance of the multitude and the wilds, whose tendrils are our seams. You might as well call it a ‘lie’ – there’s some rhetorical advantage in such directness. Whiteness is a lie because it claims those who join the project of white-identified people are not indigenous.

Akomolafe is saying that even as a white person who has joined the “white project” somehow I have become indigenous. Indigeneity is not something I have not felt in my bones, which is probably part of the reason I felt compelled to live outside of the white world. Part of my personal mission in learning to speak a language and live as part of a rural African village for ten years of my life was to become a human being. I think I wanted to become more like indigenous Ghanaians in their rootedness, while at the same time they are under pressure to become a little more like me–desiring to integrate some whiteness into themselves.

Whatever hyphenated identities we have, how can we stay connected to terra firma, to our roots, to our histories and still reach out to the world around us? As white people I am not saying that we all should all go back and learn Finnish, German, and Irish or whatever mix of languages and cultures are in our pasts. Or that we all need to travel overseas and learn a new culture and language. But, how are we remembering our roots, the history of how we “became white” and what that meant for our ancestors, and for people we displaced? What about those people who did not desire to perform “pure” whiteness? How were they labeled if they had white skin or brown skin? And then once we get in touch with that history of how we got here, and who was excluded in the process, how do we still reach out to the world around us, which is still dominated by “whiteness” as an access card?

We need to make sure that decommissioning whiteness is not just a way to keep others away from our inheritance. Whiteness is still a tool that is useful, so why not share it as a tool? Being white is not a birthright. White people had to learn whiteness too. Let’s not make it a weapon to keep people out. One of the best ways to decommission whiteness as an exclusionary tool which seeks to root out everything else is to reconnect to our histories, including the traumatic parts, to heal, to make amends where we can, and to reconnect to the earth and communities from which we came, and upon which we still depend. Can we become indigenous white people? That may mean connecting to whatever location and community we find ourselves in now in ways that are human, life-giving, and inclusive. At the same time, how do we extend a hand to others who may want to integrate into themselves a part of what has become indigenous to us?

One thought on “Hey white man! Embodying, performing, and decommissioning whiteness”

  1. Thank you, Nathan. This is deep. Curiously, some white people, like myself, having grown up in Northern Minnesota as a Finnish American, have never considered ourselves “white.” I’ve always defined myself by my Finnish heritage. People like me have enjoyed the privileges of whiteness without recognizing how deep and wide they go, including rights defined in law. It has taken me well into older adulthood to understand the benefits I’ve received as a “white” person — having never had a loan denied because of the color of my skin, or the opportunity to purchase property, or the right to live and act wherever I choose. Nathan, your thoughts on “whiteness” are welcome and worth deep reflection.

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