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Whiteness Isn’t Just About Privilege

How focusing on white privilege misses a critical component of whiteness

Antiracists often talk about the unearned privilege that people get just for being perceived as white. But what if whiteness isn’t just about opportunity? In her book, Waste of a White Skin, Dr. Tiffany Willoughby-Herard makes the convincing argument that the other side of white privilege is white misery. She explains that if we want to understand why whiteness exists, we need to see how whiteness also limits white people’s autonomy.

Willoughby-Herard studies the influence that white capitalists, such as Andrew Carnegie, had in shaping white supremacist racial regimes throughout the world. Her work connects related repressive tactics deployed in the United States, South Africa, and other settler-colonial countries with white ruling classes. Significantly, she demonstrates that contrary to popular belief, white people did not become white solely through practices and policies that gave them more privileges than other racialized groups. White people simultaneously became white through being surveilled, scrutinized, and punished by other white people.

Producing Whiteness in the United States

Bain News Service, Publisher. A. Carnegie. , 1913 (Library of Congress)

Tiffany Willoughby-Herard explains that for Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-American industrialist and philanthropist who made his fortune in the American steel industry, a reliable white supremacist racial caste system was critical for maintaining an obedient labor force. In the United States, Carnegie was infamous for the ruthless and often deadly tactics he deployed to control his workers. Central to his union-busting strategy was the twin tactics of violently repressing the labor organizing of his white workers and using Black workers as scapegoats.

In 1892, the company made major technological innovations at its largest steel mill in Homestead, Pennsylvania, and subsequently cut their workers’ wages, prompting a worker’s strike. The management responded by locking the workers out of the plant and installing electrified wire and pipes filled with boiling water that would scar and maim striking workers. The company then fired all 3,800 workers, mostly immigrants of European descent, and called in the Pinkerton Guards and the state militia to protect the steel plant.

Homestead Steel Workers, Pitt Archives: Workers

After brutal clashes between the steelworkers and the police, the situation turned even more violent when the management brought in Black replacement workers as strikebreakers. Willoughby-Herard explains that Carnegie’s managers recruited Black strikebreakers to frame the conflict with white workers as a choice between bondage and freedom. If the white workers didn’t want to side with the white capitalist class and accept their wage cuts, the bosses would remind them of an even worse fate — that of the Black worker. By positioning unskilled Black workers, who had far fewer rights than white workers, to bear the violent brunt of an intraracial battle — a battle between white people — the capitalist class could foment anti-Black sentiment and take attention away from their own culpability.

Through pitting white workers against Black workers, white capitalists like Carnegie diverted attention away from the larger structure of capital accumulation and the role of capitalists in driving down workers’ wages, creating the illusion that the real problem was about labor competition. Additionally, as Willoughby-Herard shows, the idea that white and Black workers were in competition with each other for the same jobs was a myth that created “false notions about black agency, black opportunity, and black competition for jobs” (p.112).

Despite the threat that white workers felt from Black, Latino, and other workers of color, the truth was that workers did not freely compete with each other. As we saw with the Homestead Strike, the capitalist class put them into certain positions and types of labor according to their race (and gender). In other words, white and Black workers occupied different structural locations in the racialized labor hierarchy, which largely prevented them from being in direct competition. Instead of thinking about capitalism as a system that allows people to compete for jobs freely, Willoughby-Herard urges us to think about it as a system of racial entrapment — for both white people and people of color.

State militia entering Homestead, PA. to put down the strike. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Willoughby-Herard and other historians, such as Barbara Fields and David R. Roediger, have detailed the long process through which white people became white. From the 17th century when alliances needed to be broken between European indentured servants, enslaved African people, and Native peoples, to the 20th century when European workers were constantly positioned against Black, Latino, and Asian workers, we learn that the white working class did not become white through significant concessions from the white capitalist class but through being disciplined into their position in the racialized labor hierarchy.

In accepting their whiteness and buying into the myth that their signature threat was not capitalist exploitation but was “cheap” Black labor, white workers in the United States emboldened an economic system that required their subordination.

Producing Whiteness in South Africa

Even the philanthropy of the white capitalist class was used to discipline poor white people into accepting the rules and restrictions that came with their whiteness, particularly the expectation that they would not organize against capitalism. Willoughby-Herard details Andrew Carnegie’s influence in South Africa as an example of the type of white-on-white violence that was critical to the production of white supremacy. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Andrew Carnegie’s philanthropic arm, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, seized on an opportunity to capture a vital part of the global marketplace by intervening in South Africa and helping to establish a stable, capitalist ruling class that would be friendly to American imperialism.

Carnegie was particularly concerned with the Black militant political organizing in South Africa and its potential to overthrow the nation’s white ruling class. Willoughby-Herard explains, “From the African Methodist Episcopal Church championing South Africa as a “black man’s land” (1903–5) to the black revolts in 1906, white commentators regarded such articulations of a black political agenda against accommodationism as the seeds of a race war.”

South Africa’s Zulu warriors during the 1906 rebellion, Wikipedia

Adding to the threat of a militant working class was the situation of poor, white South Africans. During the transition from an agrarian to a primarily industrial society, white workers relied extensively on the social, housing, employment, and health care networks established by African, Indian, and other workers of color in urban areas. White Afrikaner Nationalists worried about this dependency and raised the concern that poor white people would become eventual political allies of their Black and Brown neighbors, with whom they were increasingly intermingling and had even begun to marry.

Before Carnegie’s intervention, there was no clear consensus among the white Afrikaner ruling class about how to deal with this threat from below. Drawing on the burgeoning Eugenics movement, the Carnegie Corporation helped to form a more cohesive white nationalist ideology in South Africa by drawing on biological explanations about white superiority.

Photo and description from Carnegie’s Poor White Study, “Boy suffering from malaria. His whole diet consists of mealiemeal and coffee — all without sugar or milk.” Cited in Waste of a White Skin.

For six years, the Corporation invested a tremendous number of resources in producing a “scientific” study of South Africa’s white working class, which sought to explain and “prove” the causes of white poverty. Unsurprisingly, Carnegie’s “scientists” ignored any causes of poverty that were linked to capitalism (e.g. the competition between capitalists that drove down workers’ wages) and relied on racial explanations. In particular, they argued that poor whites’ economic suffering was due to their proximity to Black people, which caused a denigration of their character and ability to be prosperous. To solve this “problem,” the Carnegie alliance promoted segregationist laws that separated white South Africans from Black, Indian, and other South Africans of color.

While the sympathy shored up by the Poor White Study might have seemed like a positive development for South Africa’s white working class, Willoughby-Herard shows that the segregationist policies that followed perpetuated white misery. Rather than giving white workers more power, the policies did little to improve the lives of poor white people while heightening anti-Black racism, further reducing the autonomy of Black South Africans.

Carnegie’s researchers recommended ejecting Black people from the city, arguing that this would preserve unskilled jobs and the scant housing stock for poor white men with families. To limit Black South Africans’ agency, they promoted a suite of anti-Black laws, including vagrancy laws, criminal and penal codes, a migrant labor system, and the suppression of even the most minimal educational and artisanal aspirations.

In addition to this interracial violence against Black South Africans, white state officials deployed various forms of intraracial violence against white South Africans. Willoughby-Herard explains that the coercive and repressive apparatuses deployed against poor whites included removing poor white children from their families and placing them in institutional care in trade schools and private domestic work and committing poor white men to labor colonies, like the Kakamas Labor Colony, that were essentially reeducation camps.

Photo and description from Carnegie’s Poor White Study, “Children on the Diamond Diggings (Lichtenburg). Digger’s family. The father had just finished chopping up baby’s chair as last bit of firewood.” Cited in Waste of a White Skin.

The Carnegie alliance deployed these disciplinary policies to break the alliance between white workers and workers of color. Through the constant monitoring, surveilling, and punishment of poor white people, they eventually learned to align themselves with the white capitalist class. Far from establishing this white alliance solely through shared privileges, Willoughby-Herard explains that Carnegie’s segregationist policy recommendations “in effect criminalized poor white people for being poor and made them more available for social control under the guise of rehabilitation via intensive processes of racialization” (p. 27).

Notably, the violent ways that that white capitalist class disciplined poor white people into prioritizing their whiteness were not unique to the United States nor South Africa but were systematically spread throughout the world by the Carnegie Corporation and other architects of white supremacy.

Whiteness — the Midas touch

Given this history, it seems that we are missing an essential piece of the puzzle if we equate whiteness with accomplishment, privilege, and freedom. Willoughby-Herard suggests that a better way to talk about whiteness is as pathology, diminished selfhood, soul injury, and death (p. 95). It is the pursuit of whiteness — in the form of anti-Blackness, the racial contract, private property, and individualism — that has caused the devastation and suffering of human existence, most especially for people of color, but also for white people.

Importantly, Willoughby-Herard recognizes that we cannot undo the attractiveness of the pursuit of white supremacy by talking about how it always wins and how it always satisfies human greed. Instead, it’s both more powerful and more accurate to speak of white supremacy as being antihuman in the sense that it creates premature death for those designated as black — and those in close proximity to blackness — and requires the dehumanization of those designated as white.

This reframe requires us to see how the pursuit of whiteness leaves people less human and less capable of accountability for their own debasement. Willoughby-Herard eloquently sums up this dilemma by describing whiteness as “the ultimate Midas touch.” Rather than being a form of freedom, whiteness is more accurately “a wealth that enraptures, encases, and ultimately entombs.”

How would our antiracist activism change if instead of thinking about whiteness as a system of advantages, we come to understand it as a poisonous system of deprivation that pits people against each other and prevents the creation of common ground?

It seems to me that if we want to challenge whiteness, we must be attentive to the profound losses it causes to all human development. Whiteness is a form of social control that harms everyone. Eradicating this poison requires a recognition of our shared humanity and the ways that racial capitalism keeps all of us as prisoners in a carceral regime marked by deprivation, surveillance, and punishment. Ultimately, challenging whiteness means creating a world in which all people can be free.

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