Baldwin believed that no substantive racial progress, and no fundamental transformation of the nation, could be achieved so long as innocence remained the organizing feeling of American whiteness. This is why he had championed love as a countervailing feeling. In fact, he believed it to be the only remaining force powerful enough to free whiteness from its arrested state of innocence, concluding, “If love will not swing wide the gates, no other power will or can.”DAGMAWI WOUBSHET, “How James Baldwin’s Writings About Love Evolved”
I read Dagmawi Woubshet’s piece in The Atlantic after watching the gorgeous movie If Beale Street Could Talk. This passage, about innocence being the organizing feeling of American whiteness, is the single-most illuminating insight I’ve come across about how whiteness works in today’s culture. I see it at almost every turn–the white person’s (my own) wish to be innocent, the habit of situating this wish before any reflection on how we act in the world, the fact that this wish profoundly clouds our relationship with reality. How often does our wish for innocence motivate our activity before a sincere feeling of shared humanity and, I echo James Baldwin, love?