“It’s Okay To Be White” After Stephon Clark

By: Evan Yi ’18

When I first saw the “it’s okay to be white” stickers, I was mildly ticked, then continued on to my professor’s office hours. I was unsurprised at their arrival on campus, given what this college and campus has been and has done for centuries. After reading both Jonathan Sheperd-Smith’s thoughtful post as well as the link he added, I decided I couldn’t leave them as is. Thinking of the nonwhite students, faculty, and staff implicitly targeted by this more insidious white nationalist propaganda, I erased.

The practice of creating poetry by erasing political texts has a long history. I won’t dive in at length here, but consider erasures of Roosevelt’s correspondence before Order 9066 [1]. Consider M. NourbeSe Phillip’s poetic collection “composed by erasing the 1783 legal decision Gregson v. Gilbert, in which 150 Africans aboard a slave ship were drowned so the ship owners could profit from insurance” [2]. Consider Paul Celan’s project of erasing and rebuildiang German language itself post-Auschwitz. Consider the erasures of Trump’s inauguration speech made primarily by nonwhite and queer writers.

Consider that for those who do not have access to the cultural narrative of their own bodies, erasure of that cultural narrative is the only artistic mode available. Consider that though I am not marginalized in that way and have done nothing close to the important work they have, there is a history of such resistance. And such resistance has always encountered the same tired arguments.

The ethics of erasure poetics have also been long debated – particularly, whether an aesthetic tactic rooted in state censorship and repression can be rehabilitated. Some people commented on my Facebook post to voice a less nuanced, more tired version of this argument – namely, that erasing these stickers “chills speech, turns students into vigilantes, and also sends a really ugly message to the students of this school that they can tear down and silence people who they disagree with.”

This grossly misunderstands much more than the project of erasure poetics, but I will start there. One of the most frustrating liberal misconceptions is that free speech is first and foremost an individual practice, unrooted in a wider economy of ideas. But free speech is infringed upon only when the speech itself, and more specifically, the idea itself, is endangered within that wider economy.

I did not chill “it’s okay to be white.” White nationalists will continue to use it tomorrow and next week and next month, regardless of whether or not they created it, which seems to be a crucial semantic distinction for some. But that is less important than that the country will, for my foreseeable lifetime, continue to prioritize not only white people, but white property, over the physical erasure of people of color like Stephon Clark, Korryn Gaines, and Philando Castille.

I wish that by revising a sticker I could endanger the idea that their lives and deaths matter less. I wish that by revising a sticker I could undo the legacy of the centuries in which black and brown people have not only been – and are still being – killed and forgotten in the name of such property, but have been made property itself. But it will remain. I have chilled nothing.

What I’ve tried to do, rather, in erasing just the word “white”, is lay bare the gap between what “white” means for most white and nonwhite people. Even for white people aware of and resistant to it, whiteness is a passive possession, interchangeable with humanness, and never in danger of revocation. White life operates more or less smoothly within the promise of the legal system – if you commit “x” crime, you receive “x” punishment. Because the legal system continues to affirm its promise for white people, many are only willing to critique white supremacy when it falls under the legal definition of hate speech. The law is and does right because it is the law. Resisting arrest is a misdemeanor in almost all states, and in the few where it is a felony, its maximum punishment is imprisonment. For almost all white people, the punishment is proportional to the crime. In this sense, it is okay to be white.

For people of color, on the other hand, precisely because of whiteness’ entanglement with human-ness, whiteness is an everyday matrix of dehumanization, re-inscribed at the grocery store, the admissions office, the police stop. For black and brown people, and specifically Stephon Clark, the state has full license to kill based on the slightest conception of resistance – or in his case, three seconds of confusion about who has entered his yard, unannounced and armed. Such is the problem with body cameras. We can only see through the state’s eyes, as we do every day, wherein what blackness means and does is always up to interpretation: an iPhone is actually a gun, a man terrified for his life is actually plotting to kill.

Historically, whiteness is an identity built by proxy, exclusion, and violence: more specifically, the violent subjugation, destruction, and categorization of non-white peoples – including those who became white to escape that violence, like the Irish, the Italians, and the Slavs. Consider Ozawa or Bhagat Singh Thind v. United States. To be proud of, or as I would argue, to even declare it as something “okay”, simultaneously ignores and celebrates that history. Disassembling whiteness does not mean destroying people who are white – those who believe this betray how central whiteness is to not only their identity, but their conception of humanness.

Ultimately, I could not care less about white guilt, nor an identity politics that roots itself first and foremost in comparative trauma, tolerant multiculturalism, and awareness politics that emphasize virtue signaling over direct action. Awareness and diversity will not keep future victims of state violence alive. I am not interested in making whiteness an equal playing field, more accessible to all. I do not care about how white people feel about Stephon Clark’s death. I am interested in what they do. I am interested not only in building a world where Stephon Clark might still be alive, but one in which he and his children can fully live.

[1] Collier Nogues, http://www.pangyrus.com/deep-end/dear-grace/

[2] Rachel Stone, https://newrepublic.com/article/145396/trump-era-boom-erasure-poetry

Evan Tian Yi ‘18 is a Creative Writing and Asian-American studies double-major from Little Rock, Arkansas. Contact him at evyi@davidson.edu.

Comments are closed.