Let me let you, dear reader, in on a little secret. The most controversial thing I do in my work is not covering the courts or pointing out the political motivations behind the justices’ decisions. It’s not my objection to police brutality or the contempt in which I hold the modern Republican Party. No, the most controversial, jarring, and frankly career-limiting thing I do is remind white Americans that they are white. That’s why I’m not going to get my own television show or be poached by Spotify to share theories about Earth’s geometry. I tell white people to their faces that they are white, and white people, enough of them anyway, don’t like that.
A lot of white people generally don’t think of themselves as “white” people; they think of themselves as the default people. “Regular” people. “Normal” people. White people are “people,” and everybody else is a hyphen-people. Everybody else is an “other.”
You can hear this worldview when you listen very closely to some white people, but every now and again one of them drops all pretenses and says the quiet part aloud. Yesterday, reporter Pablo Manriquez asked Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell about concerns “voters of color” have over voting rights. McConnell said the concern was misplaced, because: “If you look at the statistics, African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.”
The “white” was silent. McConnell let slip that he thinks “American” is a category that doesn’t include the voters of color he was being asked about generally, or the “African Americans” he specifically marginalized in his answer. As a further insult, McConnell somehow reduced all other voters of color to “African Americans” without addressing Latino turnout or Asian American turnout.
And McConnell was wrong. Let’s not let his white supremacist slip of the tongue mask the fact that he was also spreading false information about the state of voter turnout in this country. The Brennan Center estimated that 70.9 percent of white people voted in the 2020 election, compared to 63 percent of Black people, 60 percent of Asian people, and 54 percent of Latinos. McConnell is either embarrassingly ignorant of American voter turnout, or overreacts every time he sees a person of color in a polling booth—or does both at the same time, while dreaming up ways to keep white people in permanent control of the country.
So when I point out McConnell’s whiteness as he both diminishes the roadblocks to voting in this country and supports a system that sees white people overrepresented in the electorate, it is both factual and relevant. It is important to strip McConnell and his white enablers of their perceived default position at the center of American society. White people are not the only people or the most important people in this country. They are just one of many people, and their perspective and lived experience is but one way to view the world. McConnell, and the white Americans he thinks he speaks for, do not have a monopoly on what it is to be “American,” and calling them by their more accurate descriptor reminds them of that. Calling white people “white” doesn’t expose my bias (is this where I get to say “some of my best friends are white”?), but the reaction to being called white usually exposes theirs.
In my experience, what really pisses (some) white Americans off is being “lumped in” with all other white Americans. Calling them white takes away some of their individuality, and, boy, do a lot of them get angry about that. That’s funny to me, considering that I’m judged together with all other Black people at nearly all times and have been for my entire freaking life. White pollsters, for instance, do not think twice about talking about the African American vote, expressed as a monolith, in the same chart where they break white folks up into several different categories—from “college” white folks to “young” white folks to white folks who eat corn flakes for breakfast.
But those same white pollsters will get all up in my face when I call them “white” pollsters.
White people like McConnell love to diminish the diverse American experiences of so many people in this country to a reductive hyphen, but when you turn the use of a single adjective around on them, they’ll squeal out the one Martin Luther King Jr. quote they can remember and indignantly demand to be judged by the content of their character. I call white people “white” because I treat them like they treat everybody else, but they’re so used to being treated better than everybody else that equality feels like an attack.
McConnell has bemoaned accusations that his and his party’s obstruction of voting rights legislation aligns them with old-school racists. I mean, if opposing voting rights legislation at the same moment your party is passing laws at the state level aimed directly at suppressing the minority vote—laws that are constitutional only because you engineered a conservative, anti-voting-rights majority on the Supreme Court by using a carve-out to the same filibuster you now claim is a bedrock principle of constitutional government—isn’t enough to earn the label “racist,” I sho’nuff don’t know what is. What on earth would McConnell have to do to be called racist if not this? Pose in front of a Confederate Flag at a Sons of Confederate Veterans event? Come on, a politician who did such a thing and then went on to lead his party through a period of unprecedented obstruction of the administration of the first Black president might say he isn’t racist, but nobody sensible could be obliged to believe it.
Ultimately, I can’t change how white people see themselves. A white person can live their whole life in this country interacting only with fellow whites who share the view that this country is made by white people for the benefit of white people. They’re wrong, but I do not have the power to make the willfully blind see the light. All I can do is refuse to participate in their delusion. Both Mitch McConnnell and I are Americans. It’s just that one of us is too white to admit it.