White Martyrdom

On Harris’ “Reflections on Whiteness as Property”

“In order to limit the possibility of this untenable change and restore whiteness to its former status as a marker of national identity, a number of white Americans are sacrificing themselves” (Harris)

The reactionary politics that characterized the Trump era was, for Morrison, rooted in misdiagnosed fear. Using Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury as an allegory for the crisis of white devaluation in contemporary America, Morrison makes the claim that white people today are not only aware of their situation-that is, the loss of conviction of their “natural superiority” paralleled by the unraveling of the southern elite family in the book-but are also responding in a way that suggests their livelihoods and legacy to be under attack. Morrison says that, for whites, people of color pose a threat to white America in their erasure of a long understood definition of what America used to be and what it is today (an erasure Morrsion equates to a “collapse of white privilege”). She says the response to this threat has been a rapid transition to a violent political platform that gave scared whites a means to compensate through a display of “strength”. This is symbolized in Morrison’s account of Charles opting to murder his part-black-half-brother(-in-law) rather than allowing his family bloodline and its legacy of whiteness to be “corrupted”.

Much like the radicalization of white America under Trump’s conservative regime, Charles’ decision to kill his half-brother on the basis of his being black alone comes off as unjustified, irrational and unnatural. It is only after the revelation of his race, and not the revelation of the incestuous relationship that Charles’ half-brother becomes a real, active threat to him and his family. Although Charles is unsettled by the incestuous nature of the marriage (much like how, as Morrison points out, most Americans are aware of the Trump administration’s sins and shortcomings) it isn’t enough for him to oppose the consummation of the marriage (nor, by that nature, for white conservatives to question the legitimacy/effectiveness of Trump’s presidency and politics). The jump from a timid lack of disapproval to the illegal and immoral act of murder serves to show just how strong of a catalyst race is in the eyes of the white American-so much so that it bridges a severe gap between inaction and action (action that is undoubtedly wrong and universally perceived as such). Morrison’s reading of The Sound and the Fury serves to frame this (re)action as a means of protecting white purity/whiteness that is inherent to the white American population. However, it is the ignorance of clearly understood wrongdoings (whether it be on the part of Charles or Trump’s supporters) that renders anti-black sentiment, policy and rhetoric as not just irrational but sacrificial. Morrison suggests that by mobilizing to a platform of unfounded violence, white Americans have given up a part of themselves. Whether it’s the destruction of the family unit in Charles’ case or the destruction of ‘one United nation’ under Trump, white people continue to go to extreme measures and end up hurting themselves, their principles and their values in the process. Morrison’s incorporation of The Sound and the Fury serves to provide us with an understanding of such actions’ origins as not misplaced aggression but misdiagnosed fear: not fear itself (for fear is justified), but an anxiety regarding the perceived threat black people pose to whiteness. Such anxieties have proven to be so overwhelming for white Americans and their conceptions of identity, patriotism and American history that they’ve conceded themselves in retaliation.

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