How does one “review” an essay on being black? One cannot. To do so implies that there is something fictitious, something fabricated, that can and ought to be altered in the recollections of a man trying to convey black-embodiment to any who will listen. And yet there have been many critiques of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recently published Between the World and Me. An extended essay, I have been reading and meditating on its concise and powerful 150 pages for a few weeks and I encourage all to do the same.
Coates writes on the construction of whiteness as a justification for the plunder of black bodies to uphold the class divisions that serve the foundation of the Dream, a veiled institutionalization of white supremacy. Rejecting transcendent otherworldliness, Coates embraces secular materialism and a philosophy of mind that we are only our bodies, such that the attack and ruin of black bodies is final, with the consequence that one must protect one’s body and never sacrifice it. Consistent with this, Coates denies an organizing force to the progress of history, that it is bent towards justice, and professes that there is only chaos at the highest order, though the continual suppression and repression of black bodies is fully intended and is implemented through both successful and intentionally failed policies. Coates concludes that while blacks must struggle against their oppression, this oppression will only end at the will of whites. However, Coates predicts that before this will happen the Dream will evolve to escape this shift, having through technological and oligarchic advancements begun a systemization of global plunder that will end life as we know it.
Here, I want to consider the depravity of the critiques of Coates’ writing. This is essential because so much of the criticism of the book is an implicit criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement, and we must understand attacks on Coates as disgusting denials of the legitimacy of that movement.
The critiques take the same form – disregard the descriptions and offered evidence for the general institutional structures of white supremacy and instead hold up particular stories of racism provided but deny that there is racism behind the actions of the persons who instantiate and act for the racist institutions, as if this defeats the broader account.
This is what I call “whitewash solipsism” – the denial of the existence of experiences outside a white worldview fostered by institutionalized white supremacy. We can understand whitewash solipsism in relation to epistemological solipsism, which takes root in enlightenment traditions that found that because our senses can deceive us, any sensory knowledge can be false, and that because we only have access to the external content of the world after it has been filtered and categorized by sensory and cognitive apparatuses, we cannot know how the world really is outside of our minds. This latter point is revealing about whitewash solipsism. The cognitive apparatuses of white supremacy, which are learned and developed through participation in a culture of white supremacy, not only create a certain way of understanding the world, they prevent the recognition that this is only one particular way of cognizing the world, and though it is the state-sanctified way of understanding reality, there is a world beyond white constructions of reality, and a majority of the world’s population lives in that reality.
Recognizing whitewash solipsism is not even a first step. A first step would be the combat of structures of power that brainwash us with this mind set – an immediate step being the boycott of media sources that fallaciously prime whites to fear black men. Easier said than done, of course, but that cannot be a reason not to act.