Monday, May 18, 2009

Reflections on the Meaning of Malcolm X for White People

Tomorrow, May 19th, will mark what would have been Malcolm X’s 84th birthday. In his remembrance I offer these reflections, written in 2004 while I was in school. Knowing that questions of solidarity and one’s role in struggles of liberation are never as easy to answer in life as in writing, I hope to spark reflection and dialog with this essay rather than chastise anyone for what they have or haven’t done.

Malcolm X is, of course, most remembered for his influence within the African American community. He is considered one of the greatest Black scholars in US history for his contributions to Black people’s understanding of their own identity, history, oppression, and present experience. And more than that, he is remembered as great for his contributions to Black people’s love of themselves. Malcolm was fond of pointing out that “you can’t hate the roots of a tree without hating the tree itself”. He showed African Americans that their ancestral homeland was nothing to be ashamed of, that the history of Africa was to be revered, that their African features, their dark skin and curly hair, were points of pride. In the face of Malcolm’s contribution to Blackness, most whites dismiss him as a “reverse racist” or, if they are “liberal,” they treat him as an eccentric Black icon, who may be important Blacks but who’s on the fringe of serious political discourse. Never do these white people consider that Malcolm not only had important lessons for Black folks but that they too could learn from Malcolm something about themselves. White people tend to believe that they have nothing to learn from and everything to teach people of color.

However, white people commit a huge mistake when they ignore Malcolm for he was an astute scholar of not just Blackness but whiteness too. People of color, and Black folks in particular, have always had to become more knowledgeable of whiteness than whites themselves for their survival has depended on it. In order to navigate a racist world without being destroyed, Blacks have to know how whites think and act. Whites, on the other hand, need know nothing about themselves or others; they can mosey through life completely oblivious and still have all the doors open for them.

In this essay, I reflect on what white people can learn from Malcolm X and in particular what I have learned. Because Malcolm’s body of writings and speeches is too big for a full accounting, I explore just a few aspects of his critique of whiteness. Namely, I look at his understanding of the dynamics of white supremacy, the social construction of whiteness, and the role of white anti-racist allies.

Malcolm understood that white supremacy is maintained through political, economic and social power and not through the prejudicial feelings of individuals. Essential to whiteness is the power to define the world unencumbered by the wishes of others. Malcolm states, “the white man, he wants you to remain a boy, he wants you to remain a lackey, he wants you to remain dependent on him, he wants you to come looking for him for some kind of advice, for some kind of teacher” (Malcolm X, recordings). He points out that it is in white people’s best interest for Black communities to be underdeveloped, uneducated and dependent on whites. Whites need to realize, despite their belief that “we’re all the same regardless of color,” they gain special advantages such as access to the best jobs and education due to the subordinate position of Black folks (and other people of color). White “maturity” (if you dare call it that), Malcolm explains, comes from Blacks being kept in a “child-like” state. He reinforces this point by showing the fear whites have of exclusively-Black organizations: “Our slave foreparents would have been put to death for advocating so-called ‘integration’ with the white man. Now when Mr. Muhammad speaks of ‘separation,’ the white man calls us ‘hate-teachers’ and ‘fascists’!” (Lowe, 166). In fact, whites were killing Blacks, usually with impunity, for advocating integration even during Malcolm’s day. White folks were not upset because the Nation of Islam did not support integration but rather because it was making decisions on its own terms, outside the realm of white supremacy. Whites fear the loss of power that would result from Black self-determination, which is why many whites to this day are so angered by affirmative action. Affirmative action means a loss of the special entitlements which form white people’s sense of self.

Malcolm also understood, especially after his pilgrimage to Mecca, that whiteness is socially constructed, created through social processes and institutions which give it specific meaning. White people tend to think of themselves as the normal and natural standard by which everything and everyone else is to be judged. They live under an illusion that they represent the universal “every man” or the epitome of humanity. However, whiteness is not a universal signifier but rather is the product of the unique social relations of the US. White people learn to be “white” and can learn to be different. Discussing his experience with light-skinned Muslims, Malcolm explains:

“though they were white and they would call themselves white, there was a difference between them and the white men over here. That basic difference was this . . . where Muslims are, if you find one who says he’s white, all he’s doing is using an adjective to describe something that’s incidental about him, one of his incidental characteristics . . . But when you get the white man over here in America and he says he’s white, he means something else. You can listen to the sound of his voice when he says he’s white; he means he’s boss. That’s what white means in this language.” (Malcolm X, recordings)

Being white in the US means having a specific set of attitudes and behaviors which place oneself at the center of society. Other people with similar complexions have avoided this definition of whiteness. The white experience is not equivalent the human experience or the best of humanity. Whites have just learned to believe it is. A discussion with a foreign ambassador provides Malcolm with the insight that, he says, “the white man is not inherently evil, but America’s racist society influences him to act evilly. The society has produced and nourishes a psychology which brings out the lowest, most base part of human beings” (Collins, 193). As a result of the political, economic and social atmosphere, white folks have a mind-set which marginalizes people of color. There are, nonetheless, other ways to be in the world; whiteness is but one way to think and behave and is way based on the domination of others.

Some of Malcolm’s most powerful lessons for whites are directed toward the “sincere whites” who truly want to create a racially just world. Malcolm clearly defined the role white anti-racist allies should play in undermining white supremacy. Unfortunately, Malcolm’s instructions are still as novel today as when he first said them. Malcolm urges white anti-racists “to combat, actively and directly, the racism in other white people” (Malcolm X, 375). Racism is not, according to Malcolm, the responsibility of people of color to solve. While the idea of racism is abhorrent to nearly all white people, few participate in action to try to end it. They view police brutality as a “Black issue,” the exploitation of immigrant laborers as a “Mexican problem,” the destruction of indigenous sacred sights as an “Indian issue.” Perhaps, white folks will try to “help” people of color by going to, say, a Black community or joining a Black organization in order to solve “their problem” for them. Malcolm challenges such practices:

“White people who want to join black organizations are really just taking the escapist way to salve their conscience. By visibly hovering near us, they are “proving” that they are ‘with us.’ But the hard truth is this isn’t helping to solve America’s racist problem. The Negroes aren’t the racists. Where the really sincere white people have got to do their ‘proving’ of themselves is not among the black victims, but out on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is—and that’s in their own home communities; America’s racism is among their own fellow whites.” (Malcolm X, 376)

Never on their own do whites realize that racism is a white problem. It is white people who benefit from and contribute to racism and therefore it is white people who are responsible for the problem. Regardless of how sincere white people are, as long as white society does not change neither will white supremacy. This fact calls into question the motives of “helpful” whites. Their interest seems to be less about outrage at oppression and more about denial of accountability, for if such whites were truly outraged, they would use the privileges given to them to undermine, transform or destroy white domination. One could be sure, for example, that if all Malcolm’s family, friends, neighbors and co-workers were white, he would take them to task and challenge them to join the struggle against racism. Instead, whites who oppose racism try their hardest to disassociate themselves with whiteness, insisting that racism is not their fault. They are not the “bad” kind of white person, they say, as evidenced by the fact they live in a Latino/a neighborhood, practice Buddhism or even give money to the NAACP.

White folks have many important lessons to learn from Malcolm X. He understood better than nearly any other US scholar, and certainly better than any white scholar, how the system of race works in the United States and what is necessary to overcome it. White people need to understand that our sense of who we are is based off the exploitation and oppression of others, that this identity is neither a normal nor desirable but is the product of a corrupt society, that there are other identities we can embrace, and that we can make our new identities real by attacking the racism within white society. I have learned from Malcolm a great sense of humility. My love of New Mexico, where I was born and raised, is only authentic, for instance, to the extent that I make this land a just place for the my Chicana/o and Native comrades. And that justice means that I may no longer feel as safe, comfortable and oblivious in the Land of Enchantment. When asked if any whites could join the Organization for Afro-American Unity, Malcolm responded, “if John Brown were alive, maybe him” (Malcolm X, 416), referring to the militant white abolitionist. Rebellion against all forces of oppression at risk of death is the vision Malcolm leaves whites as they confront themselves and embark down a new path.

Collins, Patricia Hill. “Learning to Think for Ourselves.” In Teaching Malcolm X. edited by Theresa Perry. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Lowe, Robert. “The Perquisites of Whiteness.” In Teaching Malcolm X. edited by Theresa Perry. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Malcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Grove Press, 1965.

Malcolm X. Recordings. Audio downloaded off the internet. (Many speeches, quotes and audio recordings can be found at as well as other places on the web.)