5 QUESTIONS: West Virginia native tracks a journey into “Giving Up Whiteness”


Jeff James

West Virginia native Jeff James’ recent book features what may be one of the most provocative titles of 2020: “GIVING UP WHITENESS: One Man’s Journey.” New York Times best-selling author Jen Hatmaker describes it this way: “This book is a hard look at history, the racial invention of whiteness, the structures built around the protection of white supremacy, and a hopeful posture toward a more beautiful world where racism is confronted, condemned, and overcome. May it all come to be.” 

Fellow West Virginia native Elizabeth Gaucher asks ‘5 Questions‘ of Jeff, an old friend of both of ours, from back in the day—when there was an attempted coup afoot to jury-rig a cultural/politico/social Renaissance in West Virginia. (Many of the co-conspirators are now scattered to the four winds, but the dream lives on.) In the discussion below, conducted online from James’ home in Nashville and hers in northern Virginia, he talks about the genesis and substance of his book with Gaucher, editor of the literary magazine Longridge Review.. ~ Douglas John Imbrogno


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1.

ELIZABETH GAUCHER: Jeff, you and I have been friends since the new economy committee days of Vision Shared. I loved working with you on support for the idea of what a creative economy could look like and do for our shared home state. Your book is so well-timed, in some ways by coincidence. But to be honest, I think it’s more than that. You are so clearly attuned to these issues over many years, and that reality shows up on every page of “Giving Up Whiteness.” This is a book examining white supremacy politics and the manufacturing of race to serve those politics—but I know you and this also reads like an open-hearted memoir.


“We humans love power. We’re addicted to it because it’s such an attractive short-term antidote to fear.”


Let’s dig in. This is unorthodox, but I have to begin with the ending, a great line in the last part of your book: “We humans love power. We’re addicted to it because it’s such an attractive short-term antidote to fear.” What can you tell readers about how the dynamics of power and fear connect to what you saw growing up in Glenville, WV? You write about that a bit in the book.

JEFF JAMES: Thank you. And I love that we’re reconnecting over this topic. I recall how you and your husband, Jamie, were strong advocates for pushing for much deeper diversity when we formed the board of Create West Virginia, an outgrowth of our work at Vision Shared.

My feelings of embarrassment over having my lack of commitment exposed come back to me when I think about that. Here I was, a presumptive leader trying to champion diversity as part of Create West Virginia’s pillars—and I was being called out for a lack of action on that very topic.



Those feelings are instructive to what I later learned about power and fear, during my journey to more deeply understand race and its relationship to our identity.

Power and fear play a more foundational role in relation to race when you grow up in a rural, mostly all-white environment, such as Glenville, West Virginia. As a child of small-town Appalachia, insecurity and a feeling of defensiveness seem pumped into your veins at birth. There is a fear of “others” and of the “out there” that many don’t even realize is taking shape until much later—when we actually meet “others” and live “out there.


“Even when we turn into liberal do-gooders, we’re not aware of addictions to power that whiteness can take advantage of.”


There is an early story in the book about me working a summer job with a natural gas company in Gilmer County. The men around me would daily comment and pass judgment on people of color, those in higher socio-economic positions, or those who live in the city. Judgment and jokes are the tools of the insecure, and although I was more exposed to the “others” and the “out there” places at a younger age than these gentlemen, I didn’t realize I had my own versions of judgments forming in me that weren’t understood until later in life.

For those of us privileged enough to obtain higher education and a collection of broader experiences living outside Appalachia, we don’t want to admit to our own entanglements of power and fear that play into our own form of “enlightened” racism. Even when we turn into liberal do-gooders, we’re not aware of addictions to power that whiteness can take advantage of.



2.

EG: My impression is many people think “being white” is an immutable condition—you either are or you aren’t. What’s the simplest way you can explain to people the idea behind your book: that ‘whiteness’ is an invention we can choose to reject?

JJ: That is most definitely the most difficult obstacle to overcome when attempting to speak to someone on these issues who hasn’t spent a significant amount of time pondering the definition and origin of race. Not surprisingly, after centuries of having this assumption surround us at birth, it is difficult for many—including me, at first—to separate “white” from “whiteness.”

Part of it is that we’ve fallen into a lot of semantic traps laid for us—on purpose, it turns out. Although none of us Euro-origined folks are literally white (perhaps with the exception of those with albinic traits), there is a reason one of the invented category of races was labeled “white.” It was chosen to reflect the biblical themes of purity and goodness. Throughout history, those making up the categories tend to align themselves with the most desirable moniker.


“The term ‘white’ was chosen to reflect the biblical themes of purity and goodness. Throughout history, those making up the categories tend to align themselves with the most desirable moniker.”


But of course, the book isn’t talking about changing your skin color, or pretending you’re another race, as some who are offended by the title have suggested on my author Facebook page. It’s about understanding that race is a social construct, not a biological one. We don’t have enough differences in our DNA (around .01%) to have true biological category differences among the human species.

So, I’m suggesting, after several years of personal study on the topic to satisfy my own angst and curiosity, that since the cultural assumptions layered on top of an invented racial category were also made up, we can un-make this destructive way of categorizing and assigning false levels of value.

A critical historical fact that I suggest we all embrace is that not only was race invented, it has also changed constantly since it took hold as a concept.

Prior to the 17th and especially the 18th century, there were assumed to be dozens of races, including within Europe. It was only when European colonization exploded that this notion of a noble “white race” took shape and served as a justification for oppressing other peoples from other continents. I won’t get it into in this response, but a lot of that was also interwoven with a twisted application of Christian theology to rationalize the whole endeavor. We all know how that turned out.


3.

EG: You write about  how some people connect their identity to their status as a white person. Is that because they are mixing up whiteness with things like ethnicity and culture? Is there anything positive about “whiteness” in your mind?

JJ: I have come to believe that those things of redeeming value currently associated with whiteness are better understood and celebrated by focusing on more tangible identifiers, such as ancestry. When I lift the vague, superiority-laden halo umbrella of whiteness off of me, all of a sudden I start learning about and appreciating the fact that I am 86% British Isles and 14% Southern Europe (Greece, Italy, etc.), if the DNA tests are accurate. I’d like to know more about that and celebrate it.


“When you zero in to more accurate and specific elements of your identity, they become much more interesting.”


I am also more likely to dig into and appreciate my Appalachian-ness. When you zero in to more accurate and specific elements of your identity, they become much more interesting. It also frees me to admit the weaknesses of my Appalachian culture, but also the richness.

This approach, in my opinion, also leaves room for individuals to celebrate their full selves. I often think of friends of African or Indian ancestry who grew up in London, for example. There are many elements of British culture that they clearly enjoy, but when they come to the United States they get visually labeled as Black, or Indian. When they speak with their British accents, people react so surprised as if they’re from another planet! I have “white” friends who grew up in Africa as children of missionaries, and they maintain key elements of African culture. Think about the freedom of expression and identity that could be available if we set aside broad, not-that-useful racial categories.


“It’s easy to see how that makes anyone not labeled white as “less American.”


What became very challenging in the United States is how closely “white” and “American” were interwoven. Unfortunately, consciously or subconsciously, they became synonyms. It’s easy to see how that makes anyone not labeled white as “less American.”

I think that is the struggle we’re seeing now as the United States moves from assuming whiteness is the standard towards a new vision that sets aside whiteness—and instead focuses on many of the words in our founding documents that refer to freedom and equality without qualifiers.

We all know there were assumed qualifiers in the minds of the Founding Fathers, excluding women and people of color. But the words themselves—viewed outside of whiteness—make room for an America, version 4.0. That is to say, version 1.0 representing slavery, 2.0 representing racial segregation, 3.0 representing Civil Rights Era assimilation, and 4.0 representing full equality.


4.

EG: How could West Virginia shift its identity as a “white” state to something more robust in the demographics category? We talk a lot about diversifying the state. But what do you see as realistic for the Mountain State right now to make a positive difference on its white identity?

JJ: I don’t think it’s that much different than what the country needs to do, only on a focused state-level scale. Growing up, I never had an appreciation for the Scots-Irish roots of many West Virginia settlers. I certainly didn’t have an appreciation for Native American culture or the amazing diversity of the early coalfield population, which attracted immigrants from all over the world.


“I didn’t realize Count Basie and other traveling musicians would actually make stops in Bluefield (WV) because there were so many African-American fans of their music.”


Until I worked with my friend Crystal Good, who plays a major role in my book, on an event called “The Soul of Coal,” I never realized how many African American coal miners there were in Southern West Virginia. I didn’t realize that Count Basie and other traveling musicians would actually make stops in Bluefield because there were so many African-American fans of their music.

There is a video that I sometimes saw running at the West Virginia Culture Center. I think it was a scene from an early Vandalia Festival in the 1970s, where live folk music was being played and a circle of folks just broke out in traditional folk dance. An African-American man was a part of the circle and took his turn dancing, and there was so much joy on his face and the face of all those around him. It was completely natural.

It got me thinking of how natural it can become for us to celebrate and participate in all kinds of cultural expressions when we feel confident in our identity and are free to share it with others, whether that be WV Italian Heritage Festival, Multifest, or the WV Folks Festival in my hometown of Glenville. We’re all West Virginian, but we all contribute these unique portions of ourselves to what that means.


“Just as we must break the ‘America = white’ mental equation, we must break the ‘Appalachia (or West Virginia) = white’ equation.”


Just as we must break the ‘America = white’ mental equation, we must break the ‘Appalachia (or West Virginia) = white’ equation. I think we do that by using the tactics used to build all cultures: symbols, stories, and celebrations. Crystal has been a hero at elevating awareness of the existence and importance of ‘Affrilachians’— African American Appalachians— to West Virginia’s history and culture, and there are so many ways we could do this. From Storer College to Katherine Johnson, there are so many stories that can be elevated. Powerful stories, visibly and consistently shared, shape the identity of any place.


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5.

EG: I really love the way you write, the way you roll out this experience, this “journey” as you call it in your subtitle as “one man’s journey.” It’s fascinating how you manage to tell a very personal story and at the same time, offer very relatable and universal ideas for other people to consider. What’s the message you want to leave your fellow West Virginians with about how your story can connect to theirs?

JJ: I wrote the book with that structure because I wanted to show an authentic journey into self-awareness, history, and cultural influences which can lead to transformation. I always tell people, this is not a book from an expert! It’s a book from a fellow pilgrim. I share a LOT of embarrassing stories about myself in the book. I did that because—going back to the power and fear discussion earlier— I wanted to take the self-consciousness out of the equation in order for others to go on their own journeys.

Let’s be honest—many of us don’t stick our neck into these topics because we’re afraid we’ll say something stupid, which I have many times. But I hope by sharing my own faux paus, my own lack of awareness, that others won’t feel so fearful about making their own mistakes.


Many of us designated “white” don’t feel like we have racial privilege. But, in fact, we do, and it’s OK to admit that and still continue with our own economic and class struggles.


We’ll never fix any of this without making mistakes. However, if we’re honest about them, willing to learn from them, and treat each other with grace, these mistakes can actually lead to major leaps in understanding and bonding.

The message I would leave for my fellow West Virginians is this: Yes, many of us have struggled. Yes, many of us designated “white” don’t feel like we have racial privilege. But, in fact, we do, and it’s OK to admit that and still continue with our own economic and class struggles.

However, when we set aside whiteness as some vague catch-all identity and embrace all the elements of our identity —our past ancestry, our Appalachian-ness, even our pride in hailing from Gilmer County—we can make room for everyone’s identity to be celebrated and connected.

Ultimately, an accurate, multi-faceted identity is stronger and healthier for everyone than a vague, made-up identity that excludes.


Elizabeth Gaucher is a native of Charleston, WV. She considers herself a founding member of Create WV, having written the white paper that launched the organization. Her blog is at Esse Diem and her literary magazine is at Longridge Review.


EXCERPTS from “GIVING UP WHITENESS”


“We have a say in whether we continue to accept this false and destructive human classification called ‘race.’”


“Many white people who grow up in the cocoon of a white-centric community aren’t fully aware of the systemic powers of whiteness.”


“If you were to see me across the room, you would think, ‘There’s a white guy.’ But that would only be because you were socialized to think so.”


“We white people like our whiteness and the way we’ve architected this American culture around it. It works for us.”


“What is ‘whiteness’ anyway? Why was it invented?”


“We assumed that we could cling to our identities and just start treating each other better.”


For more on “GIVING UP WHITENESS: One Man’s Journey” see this link.

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