Warren Massenburg was as massive as his name sounds. And not just physically— Oh, sure, at the age of 15 he stood well over 6 feet tall, his broad face framed by an Afro that added at least 3 inches to his height. Nothing about him was small; every inch of his frame was big, hefty. But it was more than physical: Warren was present in a way that filled the space around him. Watchful, attentive to what was going on, unafraid to speak out.
We stood together in the halls of Wake Forest High, between classes.
“You know,” he said, peering down at me from behind his glasses. “You know…there are some white people who are ashamed of being white….”
It was the fall of 1969. Warren was one of several Black students from W.E.B. DuBois High School who volunteered, under “freedom of choice,” to come to Wake Forest. He joined the staff of the school newspaper; I was editor-in-chief. He wrote a controversial piece about discrimination that he saw happening at Wake Forest HS; the paper published it. He and I were called together into the principal’s office. We became friends.
“…there are some white people who are ashamed of being white….” His voice trailed off, his broad dark face crinkling into the slight suggestion of a smile.
I’m pretty sure I laughed. I knew he was talking about me. “I hear you,” I said. “Loud and clear.”
Behind his simple statement I heard gentle criticism, the kind that only a true friend will offer. And Warren Massenburg was truly my friend. He was saying, Don’t be ashamed of who you are.
But now I ask: is white really who I am?
The fact is, the people who came to colonize the American continent were not “white.” They were from western Europe. They were English and Spanish, French and German. They came from Ireland and Scotland. But they were not “white.” There was no such thing as “white”—
Until five years after Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, that is. In 1681, the word “white” appears in a legal document for the first time: “…it is hereby enacted, that for the time to come, whatsoever English or other white man or woman…shall intermarry” with a person of African or Indigenous descent “shall…be banished and removed from this dominion forever….” And this law was only the first of many that spread across Virginia like land-hungry colonizers.
Why was it that these laws were enacted after Bacon’s Rebellion?
In 1676, a power struggle between two Englishmen, Nathaniel Bacon and Governor William Berkeley, related by marriage, erupted into open rebellion. Bacon harnessed the fury and frustration of poor people to his cause; people of every color, every hue, came together to fight with him. He directed their rage first against the Indigenous people whose land he wanted to steal, and then against the capitol Jamestown, burning it to the ground. For a time, Bacon seized control. In the end, however, when the rebellion fell apart, Gov. Berkeley was left holding the power. And nothing significantly changed for the poor people whose unrest had been manipulated by the interests of two powerful men. But one important thing the poor had demonstrated was that, when they united across all color lines, they were a force to be reckoned with, a powerful force.
It was a lesson that was not lost on Gov. Berkeley. Before long, the first in a series of what came to be known as “race laws” was enacted, outlawing intermarriage, attacking the most fundamental unit of cohesion and connection, the family. Other laws followed, every one of them targeted to separate poor people from each other on the basis of color, or race, and to obscure any common causes they shared. As chattel slavery began to supplant the old system of indentured servitude, the division between Black people and the white people grew even wider.
Divide and conquer. The oldest and dirtiest trick in the military and political handbook.
Instead of identifying themselves with the people who shared their day-to-day struggles and concerns, the newly minted “white” people were taught to identify with those who held power over them. And ever since then, rich white people have manipulated whiteness to convince poor white people that, no matter how poor they are or how far they fall, still they “ain’t no n*****!” Poor people who identified as white began to work against their own interests, to see themselves as sharing a common identity with the rich white people who were exploiting them.
No matter how misguided those rebels were in Bacon’s Rebellion—their animosity and violence directed at Indigenous people rather than the men in power—they were united across color lines. Once the rebellion was put down, we see whiteness creeping into the legal documents, codifying divisions based on color. And it isn’t long before these divisions are backed by pseudo-scientists, who claim to find a genetic basis justifying those divisions, solidifying them into a hierarchy of race.
The word solidifying is misleading. In fact, the lines for who is white and who is not white, have always been fluid. For a long time, the Irish, the Italians and the Spanish, as well as Jewish people, were considered non-white. Given the Irish side of my Scots-Irish lineage, if I had been born in an earlier century, I might not have been white. And then there’s the question of my mother’s grandfather, who referred to himself as “dark,” and changed his middle name from Lonzo to Lawrence. We’ve never been able to find out where the name Lonzo came from. He was the sharecropping son of a sharecropper, and so official records are scanty. But the name change is telling, isn’t it?
So, is white really who I am?
Wouldn’t it be a grand finish to say that who I really am is a child of God, beyond all classifications of race. That to identify primarily as white would be to deny my primary identity as a child of God, a child of Divine Love. That I discard whiteness!
But I can’t get off the hook that easily, can I? It ain’t so easy to shed whiteness. Whiteness is a second skin, seamless and all-enclosing, sealing me for more than half a century into an identity that was chosen for me before I even knew I had a choice. I’ve been indoctrinated into whiteness, in ways that are blatant and subtle and profound. And the truth is, while I do not believe it is in any way an essential part of who I am, it is in me, deep; it has shaped and molded me, and there is no denying the power it has over me.
The best I can do right now is to recognize that whiteness is not my essential identity. At the same time, I need to examine whiteness and learn to identify its corrosive power in my being and in my life. I need to see and acknowledge the way whiteness leads all of us away from who we truly are–causes us to deny who we truly are and to do things that, in our identity as a child of God, as a human being, we would never consider doing.
Yes, Warren, I am ashamed of being white. How could I not be ashamed, as I learn what whiteness has done, is doing, to the world? the way whiteness alienates me from my true identity which is in God?
To be ashamed is not enough. It is time to investigate whiteness and find out who I truly am.
(Dedicated to the memory of C. Warren Massenburg, 1953-2005)