“Everybody knows Jackie Robinson, but nobody knows the white guy who hired Jackie Robinson. I WANT TO BE THAT WHITE GUY.” –some white lady at my work
Every now and then, a white person will stumble into a space not meant explicitly for them: a conversation, room, party, whatever. The person leaning in an obvious way into their racism will enter this non-white space and immediately become offended by a sense perceived exclusion. Why are people playing this music, talking about this thing, not talking to or about me? It doesn’t take a lot of self-awareness to understand why this kind of behavior is gross. Wa Wa Wa, fragility.
And yet, because of the culture of whiteness supremacy in which we swim, there is an opposite reaction to otherness that, while less obviously shitty, is still a tired trope of established racial hierarchies: Manic White People Energy. Manic White People Energy is what happens when white people, especially liberal white people are, in the parlance of Get Out, a little TOO happy to see a person of color. It often manifests as ferocious curiosity, attentiveness, and a virtual fixation on the non-white person. And many questions and observations: Where are you from!? I love your hair! I recently, unfortunately, directed this energy at a nice lady from central Asia. “I’VE NEVER MET ANYONE FROM KYRGYSTAN” I virtually screamed at her, before catching myself.
If you aren’t actually planning on stealing someone’s eyeballs, why is bringing this energy to a conversation with complete strangers still probably not a thing you should do? “What’s wrong with a little curiosity or being excited by new people?” asks Devil’s Advocate Boy, who we didn’t invite to this essay. As a person occasionally fending off the Manic White People Energy I’ve been conditioned to experience like crack, I can walk you through what is going on in your head and why, oh why it is in your best interest, as a polite member of society, to calm down and back the hell off.
1.Manic White People Energy (MWPE) should be understood as nervous energy seeking an outlet and a target.
Why can’t nice liberal white people be chill and why do they sometimes act so weird around black people–even those that are ostensibly their friends? Robin DiAngelo, identifying this lack of chillness in, for example, the manic smiles of white people passing a black person on the sidewalk, describes it as a product of racial tension: When white people’s anxiety about race is triggered, even just by the physical or visual presence of a PoC (thats the fragility, folks!) it results in a deranged energy so powerful that, could we harness it, we could power our futuristic cities on it. With some left over, even, because MWPE is so extra.
Your brain on MWPE, like a stretched out rubber band, is a product of tension, and moves the subject in a direction to resolve that tension. This means that you are seeking resolution, and only the object of your tension (the targeted person of color) can provide this. Which is odd, because they didn’t ask for that responsibility or consent to have you play out your emotions on them. But, more on that later.
2. MWPE is your white subconscious pushing you towards control of a situation by directing you to remain visible and centered, even though you are not the subject of discussion or praise.
White people are trained to be on high alert in any situation that doesn’t explicitly center or uplift them. In other words, they often cannot MYOB when it comes to people of color doing their own thing, because white supremacy has taught them to enact control in all situations. This is obvious when the white person disapproves of the observed activity, as when BBQ becky calls the police. It is less obvious when the white person approves of and is interested and intrigued by the activity, but their anxiety comes from viewing themselves as a non-participant. White people are trained to center their desires, whether that desire is for cultural accommodation (generally conservatives) or inclusion (generally liberals). Both can represent a violation of a person or space if they are not consenting to include you. As Eric Fershtman so eloquently points out, white fascination with black culture does nothing to counter racism if white people aren’t engaging with their own incentives and expectations. (Sorry, guy who got fired for liking Tupac too much)
Thus the white programmed response to center yourself–your questions, your curiosity, your views on racism, how interesting this experience is for you, etc–is typically inappropriate and not at all the point. Annoying white people will sometimes try to convert ostensibly black moments into moments of anti-racial catharsis for themselves (I call that the ‘celebrating moments of diversity and oh-how-far-we’ve come moments). They may even use it to declare their privilege…bravely, and out loud…as though no one knew that to be the situation already. My fellow white people: unless this is racism church and you are at confession, I don’t know that we need to see that. Which leads me to my next point…
3. MWPE is largely (even just subconsciously) a performance by white people directed at other white people.
In the context of a society that runs on white supremacy the way America runs on Dunkin, whites peoples anxiety around race can result in them treating a person of color like a prop in order to seek approval, plaudits, or acceptance from other peripheral white people. I realized this when, in my time spent in countries that were predominately not white, a lot of those behaviors became less automatic or went dormant. The reason, I think , is because in a place like China or Nigeria where a racial hierarchy based on whiteness is either absent or highly contested, there is no or less pressure to perform or equivocate. In the United States, liberal white people, constantly concerned about ‘appearing’ racist, sometimes overcompensate strategically by being EXTRA nice, EXTRA present, and EXTRA accommodating; yet their nervous energy gives them away, and they often end up telegraphing instead that PoC make them very uncomfortable. In these situations, the PoC person is being used as a prop or token to resolve an external tension between groups of white people. And that ain’t good.
4. MWPE, if we allow it to play out, shows us the difference between how we treat PoC and white people: who is allowed to have boundaries, privacy, courtesy, and deference–and who is not .
It is entirely possible to have excited, even manic energy, towards all sorts of other types of people. But why is it so unusual that we express it that way towards others–say, our boss that we admire? Let’s examine further. If you feel are unable to moderate your desire for someone (or to engage with someone, or acquire something from them) –you are just ‘too excited! This is awesome, your culture is so awesome!’ maybe it is because you implicitly know that there are NO CONSEQUENCES for you if you do not moderate your behavior. And that is the rub. Your programmed-for-racism brain knows instinctually that there are no consequences for you if you violate the personal space of/waste or monopolize the time of/ignore the emotions and cues of/ a person of color.
Would you try that crap with a white man you didn’t know? I’m guessing, no. Your ability to regulate your emotions and speech would magically return, no matter how compelling you found that person. And the white people around you would mirror that behavior–shaming you if monopolized the time of a high status person, but not a perceived low status one. Perhaps this tendency is not surprising, since research on facial cues indicates that white people are bad at telling the difference between fake and authentic smiles of non-white people.
It is this acting out of entitlement that is at the problematic root of Manic White People Energy. And there are a plethora of examples of how badly this lack of respect for PoC boundaries plays out. There are countless hair touching stories. There are countless stories of invasive personal questions about race. Yet my favorite and most weird story I’ve ever heard is from the co-founder of this blog, who was effectively kidnapped for dinner and 6 hours of conversation by a strange white lady who was desperate to have join the board of her non-profit (She did not join the non profit, and consider this piece co-authored by her on the basis of emotional labor and manic morning texting).
As Tim Wise points out, there are two types of racists (or, racisisms, if we want to be generous) The first is violent or active racism: harassing, harming, or being obviously or virulently anti-PoC. The other kind of racism is passive: It’s an acceptance of all the small cues and subtle signs and social nudges that reinforce white hegemony, as well as a passive acceptance of whatever resources and perks accumulate to white folks. It is status-quo racism, I don’t see color racism. And this is the category of collective racist behaviors that seem small, but say a lot about power, status, and leverage in our culture and every day lives. And that creepy smile isn’t fooling anyone, Susan.