I know I've been posting a lot about whiteness. As I'm approaching the pub date for Dark Roux, I'm thinking more and more about scenes in the book where whiteness infiltrates Cajun culture, watering down our identity, and making us enemies to our BIPOC neighbors.
Today I'm tackling whiteness in the form of avenging. No not the Marvel kind. Well, actually, yes. That kind. While reading Whiteness of a Different Color I am struck by the rhetoric used in cases against Irish, Italian, and Jewish folk in the early 20th century to "other" them. It is only different in words, but not in tone and action, from what is used today. The language has only moved to a dog whistle pitch (though less so for our BIPOC family who have always endured the worst of this hatred). But right behind the gut punch of whiteness being enforced with only slightly different words is how the wielders of these words position themselves as white saviors upholding the purity of culture (and white women) they were apparently put in charge of.
When you look at January sixth footage, what do you see? When you read the defense in the Ahmaud Arbery case what do you hear? I know many in this country still see superheroes upholding our fragile freedom, our moral good. Their language is no different than what I'm reading. The only difference is their targets are more obfuscated. They don't come right out and say that non-white men are the problem. But to read the above mentioned book, with its examples from newspapers and court documents, whose outcomes led to lynching and executions of Irish, Italian, and Jewish folk, it's clear that what is being defended is whiteness. To watch any case of police brutality against BIPOC folk we get to see this whiteness enforced.
I witnessed it first hand. In my early twenties my friends and I were pulled over after a tubing trip. It’s true we should not have driven then. But as my Cajun best friend was grilled by a not Cajun cop, I put on all my charm to talk to the rest of the squad, while another non-Cajun white friend voiced his protest. We all knew how much power we had. But the person with the least power was the Black man in the back seat asleep. I watched the white cops goad him until he woke up. He was, of course, frightened by white cops leering at him through the window. To this day, I don’t know the pretense they used to yank him, shirtless, out of the car and throw him face down on the hot pavement to cuff him. But yes. I guess I do. He wasn’t white enough to speak. I was white enough to speak, but only in a certain way, and my white friend could all out protest.
Over the last 150 years what has changed is who gets to be white. Italians, Irish, and Jewish folk live on the spectrum of whiteness now. So do Cajuns. Unless our accent is too strong, like when we drink too much or get mad. Or the other identities I just mentioned do something that is too unAmerican... too unwhite. We have lived in this liminal space, benefiting from whiteness in some places, and being indicted by it in others. Some of us have leaned into the privilege, others have been repulsed the the compromises it requires. Honestly, I didn’t feel white like other white people until I moved to Texas. My Cajun “otherness” was decontextualized and I just fell into the white bucket like every other person of European descent. It had benefits, but at the end of the day it just felt gross. But this is how we survived: by assimilating to this whiteness in hopes we would not draw the attention of the avengers.
So if I'm following my own reasoning right, we're left with only two options: assimilate or die. Well, I don't want to wear one of those capes to defend something that doesn't want all of me and expects me to hurt others who won't adhere to a patriarchy of sameness. And you better believe Cajuns are some of the hardest to kill (the British tried it and it just made our food and music better). Instead of wondering where that leaves me, I'd rather ask:
Where does that leave the avengers?
Credit to Ted Lasso for gif