I think it's called 'projection.' When someone
subconsciously realizes that a particular trait applies to them, and then
attempts to locate that trait in others, so as to alleviate the stigma or
self-doubt engendered by the trait in question.
It's a well-understood concept of modern psychology, and explains much:
like why men who are struggling with their own sexuality are often the
most outwardly homophobic. Or the way whites during slavery typified black
men as rapists, even though the primary rapists were the white slaveowners
themselves, taking liberties with their female property, or white men
generally, raping their wives with impunity.
I got to thinking about projection recently, after receiving many an
angry e-mail from folks who had read one or another of my previous
commentaries, and felt the need to inform me that people of color are
"looking for a handout," and are "dependent" on government, and of course,
Such claims are making the rounds these days, especially as debate
heats up about such issues as reparations for enslavement, or affirmative
action. And this critique is a prime example of projection, for in truth,
no people have been as dependent on others throughout history as white
We depended on laws to defend slavery and segregation so as to elevate
us, politically, socially and economically. We depended on the
Naturalization Act of 1790, to make all European immigrants eligible for
nearly automatic citizenship, with rights above all persons of color. We
depended on land giveaways like the Homestead Act, and housing subsidies
that were essentially white-only for many years, like FHA and VA loans.
Even the GI Bill was largely for whites only, and all of these
government-sponsored efforts were instrumental in creating the white
middle class. But it goes deeper than that.
From the earliest days, "whites" were dependent on the land and natural
resources of the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Since Europe offered no
substantial natural riches from its soil, European economic advance and
expansion was entirely reliant on the taking of other people's land by
force, trickery or coercion. That, my friends, is dependence.
Then these same Europeans relied on slave labor to build a new nation
and to create wealth for whites; wealth that was instrumental to financing
the American Revolution, as well as allowing the textile and tobacco
industries to emerge as international powerhouses. From 1790 to 1860
alone, whites and the overall economy reaped the benefits of as much as
$40 billion in unpaid black labor. That, my friends, is dependence.
Though apologists for black oppression enjoy pointing out that Africans
often sold other Africans into slavery, this too indicates just how
dependent whites have been on black people: having to pay and bribe
Africans to catch their own and deliver them to us so as to fatten the
profits of European elites. We couldn't even do that by ourselves.
Then whites were dependent on Native peoples to teach us farming
skills, as our complete ineptitude in this realm left the earliest
colonists starving to death and turning to cannibalism when the winters
came in order to survive.
We were dependent on Mexicans to teach us how to extract gold from
riverbeds and quartz--critical to the growth of the national economy in
the mid to late 1800's--and had we not taken over half their nation in an
unprovoked war, the emerging Pacific ports so vital to the modern U.S.
economy would not have been ours, but Mexico's. That, my friends, is
dependence. Then we were dependent on their labor in the mid 20th century
under the bracero program, through which over five million Mexicans were
brought into the country for cheap agricultural work, and then sent back
across the border.
And we were dependent on Asian labor to build the railroads that made
transcontinental travel and commerce possible. 90% of the labor used to
build the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860's were Chinese, imported
for the purpose, and exploited because the railroad bosses felt they could
better control them than white workers.
In fact, all throughout U.S. labor history, whites have depended on the
subordination of workers of color; by the marking of black and brown
peoples as the bottom rung on the ladder--a rung below which they would
not be allowed to fall. By virtue of this racialized class system whites
could receive the "psychological wage" of whiteness, even if their real
wages left them destitute. That too is dependence, and a kind that has
marked even the poorest whites.
The plantation owners in the South were surely dependent on blacks, and
for more than field labor. We relied on black women to suckle and care for
our children. We relied on blacks to build the levees that kept rivers
like the Mississippi from our doorstep. We relied on black girls to fan
our sleeping white ladies so as to ensure their comfort. We relied on
blacks to do everything from cooking, to cleaning, to making our beds, to
polishing our shoes, to chopping the wood to heat our homes, to nursing us
back to health when we fell ill. We prided ourselves on being (or aspiring
to be) men and women of leisure, while black and brown folks did all the
work. That, and a lot more, is dependence; and yet we still insist they
are the lazy ones.
And northern industrial capitalism relied on black labor too,
especially to break the labor militance of white ethnics by playing off
one group of workers against the other. That also, is dependence.
During the civil war, the armies of the Confederacy relied on blacks to
cook for the troops and to make the implements of war they would use in
battle; and likewise, the Union relied on black soldiers--around 200,000
of them--to ultimately win the war. That too, is most assuredly
And white dependence on people of color continues to this day. Each
year, African Americans spend over $500 billion with white-owned
companies: money that goes mostly into the pockets of the white owners,
white employees, white stockholders, and white communities in which they
live. And yet we say black people need us? We think they are the dependent
ones, relying as we assume they do on the paltry scraps of an eviscerated
welfare state? Now let's just cut the crap. Who would be hurt more: black
folks if all welfare programs were shut down tomorrow, or white folks, if
blacks decided they were through transferring half-a-trillion dollars each
year to white people and were going to keep their money in their own
Or what about the ongoing dependence of white businesses on the
exploitation of black labor? Each year, according to estimates from the
Urban Institute, over $120 billion in wages are lost to African Americans
thanks to discrimination in the labor market. That's money that doesn't
end up in the hands of the folks who earned it, but rather remains in the
bank accounts of owners. That my friends, is dependence.
Our dependence on people of color even extends to our need to have them
as spokespeople for our ideologies and agendas: thus, the proliferation of
high-profile conservatives of color who bash their own people for us, so
we don't have to do it alone. Ken Hamblin, Clarence Thomas, Larry Elder,
Walter Williams, Linda Chavez: all of them, walking, talking, lawn
jockeys, shining their lights for white supremacy. And oh yes, our need
for them is most certainly a form of dependence.
Then, we rely on still more people of color to help further the agenda
of white dominance: namely Asians, whom we proclaim to be "model
minorities." "See how hard the Asians work," whites love to say, "why
can't blacks be more like them?" Of course, we fail to mention the
staggering poverty among Southeast Asians; or the fact that the most
successful Asian sub-groups came to this country with both business
experience and usually college educations; or the fact that despite hard
work, Asian Pacific Islanders still earn between 11-26% less than their
white counterparts, even when their qualifications are equal. Never mind
all that: the model minority myth has a power all its own, and is one more
way in which whites have become dependent on those who are not.
Indeed, I am beginning to think that whites are so dependent on people
of color that we wouldn't know what to do without them. Oh sure, some
neo-Nazis say they would love to try, but in reality I doubt they could
make it. If there were no black and brown folks around then whites would
have no one to blame but themselves for the crime that occurred; no one to
blame but themselves when they didn't get the job they wanted; no one to
blame but themselves when their lives turned out to be less than they
expected. In short, we need people of color--especially in a subordinate
role--as a way to build ourselves up, and provide a sense of self-worth we
To be sure, our very existence as white people is dependent on a
negative: to be white has meaning only in terms of what it doesn't mean.
To be white only has meaning in so far as it means not to be black or
brown. Whiteness has no intrinsic meaning culturally: can anyone even
articulate what "white culture" means? Not our various European cultures
mind you--which do have meaning but have been largely lost to us in the
mad dash to accept whiteness and the perks that come with it--but white
In workshops I have asked white folks and people of color what they
like about being black, white, or whatever they in fact may be. For
African-Americans the answers always have to do with the pride they feel,
coming from families who have struggled against the odds, fought
injustice, persevered, and maintained dignity in the face of great
obstacles. In other words, to be black has internal meaning, derived from
the positive actions and experiences of black people themselves.
Variations on the same theme tend to be expressed by Latinos, Asians and
Indigenous peoples as well.
But for whites, if they come up with anything at all, it is typically
something about how nice it is not to have to worry about being racially
profiled by police, or how nice it is not to be presumed less competent by
employers, or discriminated against when applying for a loan, or looking
for a home. In other words, for whites, our self-definition is wrapped up
entirely in terms of what and who we aren't. What it means to be white is
merely to not be "the other." And for that to have any meaning whatsoever
there first must be an "other" against which to contrast oneself.
And that is the most significant dependence of all.
Tim Wise is a Nashville-based antiracist writer, lecturer and activist.
He can be reached at <> email@example.com