The Wages of Non-Blackness: Contemporary Immigrant Rights and Discourses of Character, Productivity, and Value
I have an article in the latest issue of InTensions, “(De) Fatalizing the Present and Creating Radical Alternatives,” guest edited by Anna M. Agathangelou and Kyle D. Killian. The special issue also features new articles by Jared Sexton and Frank B. Wilderson, III, as well as others. The full article can be accessed for free here.
Drawing from W.E.B. Du Bois’ concept of the psychological wage of whiteness, this article explores how contemporary rhetoric promoted by immigrant rights advocates in the United States valorizes non-white immigrant workers in relationship to African Americans. Specifically, I examine moralized claims regarding immigrants’ character, productivity, and value as well as their contributions to the U.S. and global economy. I emphasize how this discourse echoes and draws upon managerial and capitalist perspectives of labor as well as anti-Black rhetoric regarding African Americans as lacking a work ethic, militant, xenophobic, and costly to society. Finally, I briefly consider whether the wage of non-Blackness differs from the wage of whiteness as well as the possibility of an ethical immigrant rights discourse.
I wrote this in 2008, before I had my own blog; Kenyon Farrow graciously posted it on his blog. To deal with the stress of the situation I detail, I wrote notes and ideas on the little white bag provided in the seat pockets to passengers during my flight. I couldn’t write my way out of the situation I experienced but I knew when I got off the plane that I was going to go home and write this essay.
“Southwest Airlines & ‘The Souls of White Folk’”
Tamara K. Nopper
March 2, 2008
In his 1920 essay “The Souls of White Folk,” African American scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois raised the question: “‘But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?’” Answering his own query, Du Bois responded, “Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”
A recent incident I had while flying on Southwest Airlines demonstrates Du Bois’ point. I therefore detail the situation here both to document it and to theorize its relevance for understanding contemporary white supremacy.
As is practice with Southwest, I had boarded the plane when my category of seating was called. Having been lucky enough to download the boarding pass for category A, I was among the first to pick my seat. Shortly after sitting down, an older white man sat in the seat next to mine. He then proceeded to spread his legs wide open as if, to quote a wise person I know, “he thought he had balls the size of pumpkins.” In response to the uninvited pressing, I requested room for my legs. The man then proceeded to imperiously point his finger to the floor to emphasize that his feet were within the boundary of his seats. He never addressed the fact that his legs were spread beyond them so as to invade my space and press up against my body. Instead, he said to me, “You’re a big girl.” Talking on my cell phone, I interrupted my conversation to calmly tell the man “Don’t fucking talk to me that way.”
With his right hand, the man reached across himself to grab my left arm. With my arm in his grip, he looked me in the eyes through his glasses and replied, “I’m going to slap you in your mouth.” I freed myself from him and then stood up. I called out to the steward at the front of the plane that I needed assistance since I had just been grabbed by the person sitting next to me. Hurriedly, the man bolted out of his seat, muttering that he would move. As he exited the row he made it a point to emphasize that I had cussed at him, neglecting the fact that he had made the comment that initiated our negative exchange.
I turned around to be met by a young, white woman steward named Crystal G. Webb. When I told her that I had been assaulted by the man who was now making a mad dash for a seat a few rows back, she began to laugh. As she bit her lip, a smirk escaped. I informed her that I did not appreciate her laughing and that I did not pay to be assaulted on a plane. She then asked me if I wanted to speak to her supervisor, to which I said yes.
Ms. Webb returned with an older white woman named Ms. Terri Parker. Wearing a Southwest uniform that was more official than that worn by Ms. Webb, she led the two of them as they approached my seat. Before she reached me, another older white man had sat down in the seat that had been vacated by my assailant.
I repeated my story to Ms. Parker, adding that Ms. Webb had laughed at my concerns. Ms. Parker asked me if I would like to press charges. I said yes. However, I changed my mind when I learned that it would require me to get off the plane with the man who had assaulted me and be placed on a later flight.