As a country founded on the violence of racial slavery and genocide, the United States has yet to overcome its historical dependence on the ideology of white supremacy. In his new memoir, Inheritance: An Autobiography of Whiteness, author Baynard Woods reflects on the influence of racism and the meaning of ‘whiteness’ through the lens of his own life. Born and raised in post-Jim Crow South Carolina, Woods assumed he had left the prejudices of his home behind when he left the South—until he was accused of discriminating against a Black student at the university he taught at. The experience propelled Woods on a journey to investigate his own roots, leading to the revelation that his own family had claimed ownership of more than 700 human beings in the 19th century. On this episode of The Marc Steiner Show, Woods discusses his new memoir and the ways white supremacy survives intergenerationally, often hiding in plain sight from those who benefit from it most.
Pre-Production/Studio: Dwayne Gladden
Post-Production: Stephen Frank
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us.
Whiteness and the power of it. Racism, the insidious power that defines this country. And in our society, it seems to permeate everything. But what happens when you wrestle with that on a personal level? When you know your family not only were enslavers, but took part in lynchings, and who were power brokers who instituted segregation in the wake of Reconstruction’s demise in the uncertain future after the end of slavery. Well, my friend and colleague Baynard Woods did just that in his new book Inheritance: An Autobiography of Whiteness. He grew up in South Carolina. He’s a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, and many other publications, and co-wrote with Brandon Soderberg the book I Got A Monster: The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Corrupt Police Squad. And he joins us now to talk about his book Inheritance. Baynard, welcome, good to have you with us.
Baynard Woods: Great to be here, and great to be back. You left out that I also worked at The Real News in the past.
Marc Steiner: Did I leave that out? You worked at The Real News? I’m just kidding.
Baynard Woods: Yeah, but it’s great to be back in here.
Marc Steiner: It’s good to have you here.
Baynard Woods: Yeah.
Marc Steiner: So let’s begin with the obvious question everybody asks about your cover.
Baynard Woods: Well, yeah. So I cross out my byline on the front of the book, and then throughout the book on the top of the page, and whenever I have control over it, because I’d been writing for a long time and realized in reporting this that my name stood above every story that I ever wrote like a Confederate monument. I’m reporting on Black Lives Matter and here is a Confederate monument above it. The Baynard family in 1860 believed that they owned about 700 something people, the Woods family also believed that they owned people at that time. And this goes back for hundreds and hundreds of years with both of those families, and then with other really shameful history that we’ll get into after that. And so I thought, there’s no way that I can continue to use that name like that. On the other hand, it’s my name, and I didn’t feel I could change it without continuing the cover up that made me be unaware of it anyway.
It would be like going in disguise and sneaking out of town. So instead, what I did was I crossed it out as something like crime scene tape, to draw a line around it as full disclosure of the crimes involved in the name and the way that they may have infected me. And I also did it using the tools of French deconstruction. They have a technique called, putting a word under erasure, or sous rature, where they cross it out like that. And it says that it’s a necessary word, but it is inadequate to deal with what it’s trying to deal with. Being, for instance, a word can’t capture that, so they cross through it. And so I wanted to put that in at the ends of American Reconstruction and how we can try to create a multiracial democracy out of this white supremacist, oligarchical country we have.
Marc Steiner: It is a slight digression, but I was really thinking about this this morning again as I was going through the book again and taking some notes again. We talk about racism in America a lot, some of us do anyway, and really wrestle with that. But the term and the notion of whiteness seems to have grabbed especially your generation and generations that came after the Civil Rights Movement, to wrestle with this notion of whiteness. Well, why do you think that is? What do you think that means?
Baynard Woods: Yeah, it’s a fascinating question and I think… So in your generation, my parents grew up in South Carolina, about the same age, and every door they walked in in a public space said “white” or “whites only”.
Marc Steiner: Right.
Baynard Woods: And then right about the time I was born, after the Civil Rights Act, those signs were gone, and so they said, we just don’t talk about that anymore. That’s just not something we’re going to say. And then you have people like Donald Trump saying, I don’t have a racist bone in my body. And so instead of having Bull Connor and George Wallace saying, segregation now, segregation forever. You have people saying, oh, I’m not racist, while still enacting racist policies. So saying racist allows someone to say, I’m not racist.
Marc Steiner: It was just like that woman that you talk about in the book. You went to this, maybe it was NASCAR, it was a rally, I forget which exact moment. When she was clearly a racist and showed you this picture of her Black grandchild, right?
Baynard Woods: It was at the Tea Party rally.
Marc Steiner: Tea Party rally, that’s where it was. Right.
Baynard Woods: Where a bunch of people almost assaulting an interracial couple sitting there with a sign that said, outlaw white supremacy. And then, yeah, she was very intent on showing me that she had a Black granddaughter and that meant she wasn’t racist. But the thing is whiteness was only invented as white supremacy. There’s never been a notion of whiteness separate from white supremacy. So if we talk about whiteness, you don’t have Donald Trump saying, I don’t have a white bone in my body.
Racism isn’t just a thing that happens when you’re a Bull Connor or a Klansman being actively and openly and intentionally racist. It’s a larger conspiracy that structures our entire society. And so in order for me to figure out the ways in which I am racist, then I had to figure out the way that whiteness worked in me. I think Kwame Ture had that line that, when you look at a Black man, you see a Black man. When you look at a white man, you see the army and the navy and all this behind him. And so I wanted to see how that army and navy had its tentacles in my own thinking.
Marc Steiner: And for folks who are not sure who Kwame Ture is, he used to be Stokely Carmichael then he changed his name to Kwame Ture.
Baynard Woods: Since we’re talking about changing names and stuff.
Marc Steiner: Yes.
Baynard Woods: I had to go with the rather most to the name.
Marc Steiner: Yeah, absolutely. Just wanted folks to know who you were talking about to be clear, because many folks don’t know.
So I’m going to read a few things in this book as we go through this and this kind of fits what you were just saying. You wrote earlier in the book, “I’d come to see whiteness—the system of power governing Mom and Dad’s idea of success—as a way to cheat, a false criterion of value. But whiteness is also a lie we tell ourselves to save face when we have failed. Whiteness is the willingness to replace reality with a myth in order to protect our perceived worth.” Each piece of this book was fascinating to me because at the end of almost every chapter there’s a different aspect of you struggling with this notion of whiteness. It’s your progression and figuring out who I am as a human being, and why do I think this way, and what does this legacy of the Confederacy and slavery and what my family did over these hundreds of years really mean?
Baynard Woods: Yeah. And for most of my life I didn’t have to think about it in terms of race or whiteness. I think the first one of those that ends at the first chapter is, “For most of my life, whiteness was the freedom not to think about race”. And only in rare instances you would feel, oh, I’m white, I’m different than people around me or whatever, and then almost immediately we’d be able to go back into the not thinking of it. And that’s, again, why I wanted to use the word whiteness rather than racism, is that we’re so uncomfortable to talk about our own whiteness. And even white people who are progressive can talk about, oh, those Trumpists and stuff are racist, but not us.
Marc Steiner: No.
Baynard Woods: It’s only in down South, and it’s only people whose family were here in the Civil War and it’s only… But thinking about the way that we become so uncomfortable every time we have to think about it was just on display every day with the backlash to 1619 Project, the backlash to critical race theory. Forever when we had Black history month, you always had some white jerk in prospect, well, when are we going to have white history month?
Marc Steiner: Right.
Baynard Woods: And what ends up happening, we have white history and they immediately outlaw it, because what we actually don’t want is white history month. We do want white mythology month, but that’s every month in America. So what we end up with is outlawing talking about whiteness at all.
Marc Steiner: So let’s talk in a broader frame about this one question we’re going to get into a little bit more detail. You are wrestling with your shift in consciousness, all the forms it took, especially you. I mean, I didn’t mean you necessarily, Baynard Woods. But especially you, Baynard Woods, because you grew up in South Carolina, because you have this family history. I mean the legacy of I. M. Woods, your great-grandfather, permeates the book. Even when his name’s not mentioned, you feel him throughout the entire book. And what that is like, I mean, because we’re both white, but we come at this from very different places. So talk a bit about that. How difficult it was and what it meant for this opening to happen in its own way, slowly but profoundly.
Baynard Woods: Yeah. Now when I think back on it, it’s such a strange world to grow up in. So I grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, or right outside of Columbia, South Carolina, in the ’70s and ’80s. And I heard far more about the Civil War than Civil Rights, which had been very recent, but all of the talk now, I think, about the Civil War was very much of what was code about Civil Rights. And we never talked about race when we talked about it, the enemy was the Yankees. And so that had this sort of thing of people migrating to the South from the North also, and all the Yankees came here and ruined everything, but also like, oh, they ruined everything in the 1860s. They ruined everything again in the 1960s, states’ rights, the Confederate flag flapped above the state capital. There are these gold stars on its dome showing where Sherman’s cannonballs hit it.
And one of my earliest memories is my mom telling me, I was there with her as a kid, feeding the squirrels and whatever. And there’s a statue of George Washington in front of the statehouse and it’s holding a cane, and the cane is broken. And my mom told me, well, the Yankees who came, they hated freedom so much that they stoned the father of our country. And I realized that she was getting that from the plaque, as I later learned, that was on the plinth of the statue, and it’s completely false. The cane was broken moving the statue, just a complete lie. And so you have that going on mixed with this weird counter-cultural thing with my favorite shows, The Dukes of Hazzard and Smokey and the Bandit, where you see this counter-cultural distrust of authority being merged and melded with rebellion of the Confederacy.
And so the rebel flag marking rebellion of the dope smoking variety or whatever. Also, our moonshine running or whatever. And so it was a really weird false world, mythological world, that they tried to bring me up in. And yet my dad was also the biggest company man you could imagine, and the biggest proponent of the system in America, and you have to work hard, and it will pay you off. And so it was just full of contradictions
Marc Steiner: Well, let’s go through some of these. I mean, let me find this analogy here, which I really liked a lot.
Baynard Woods: Maybe while you look, because I didn’t quite answer the question in the full past of my family. So there was never a time that I didn’t know that my family were enslavers. I always knew that. But much of my life, I didn’t know what that meant and how utterly horrendous and totalitarian and truly evil that was. And yeah, that was something that’s been a really… The real discovery was having to think through – And I think we all are still needing to do this – What that meant for the white people who felt like they somehow deserved to own people, and that in order to do that they were willing to use any means necessary: extreme, extreme force, extreme control, extreme surveillance. And all of that I didn’t know while being talked to about the Civil War and the Antebellum period and all of that stuff all the time.
Marc Steiner: So this might be a good time, since I mentioned his name earlier, and what you just said, to bring in your great-grandfather. Let’s talk a bit about him before I go back into reading from the book. I. M. Woods, and the legacy he left, and who he was, and why he played such a powerful role in the psyche of your family and yours.
Baynard Woods: Yeah. So my great-grandfather was named Irvin McSwain Woods, I. M. Woods, and he’s so fascinating to me because he was born in 1842.
Marc Steiner: 18. You said 1942?
Baynard Woods: 1842.
Marc Steiner: 1842. It’s okay.
Baynard Woods: 1842, and he turned 18 the year the war started. He had a chance to change. He had an ability to see differently. It wasn’t even a generation, two generations before living in some small isolated place. You could maybe make more of an argument, he was a man of his time, and that kind of stuff. But this guy, the times were a-changing and he could have done any number of things as people did, scalawags in the South who supported… But instead he went and fought for the Confederacy. He came back, became a Klansman terrorist. Was involved in the assassination of a Black county commissioner named Peter Lemon in 1871. Had to flee the state of South Carolina and hide out for a while, came back and was elected to the state legislature, and helped pass Jim Crow laws, was in the legislature for a while. And the laws that created the Jim Crow system and segregation.
And so I was taught to revere him like, oh, you had family who fought in this big historic event. He was wounded at Gettysburg. He was a legislator. There’s a plaque to him in a courthouse. And there was nothing more complicated that was shared with me about what his legacy was. And until I was 25 and my dad told me, oh, well, he ran away and had to hide out for a while because he killed a Black man. And that’s the only details he had. And so for me then, I had a mystery story that was I knew the culprit, and I didn’t know the victim. And it became important for me to find out who he had killed, partly because the mask crimes of enslavement were so vast that I didn’t know how to get my head around it.
The way that enslaving families would marry enslaving families back and back and my family came in the 1600, so thousands and thousands of people. And then after that, the mass harm of Jim Crow in South Carolina and the generations of that. So this one brief period, during the Reconstruction period, these acts that he did were considered crimes. And in the period before and after, they weren’t considered crimes. And so by focusing on the crime of that period, I hoped it would help me find a way into the greater miasma of criminality that created their entire lives.
Marc Steiner: I think that you’re wrestling with that, the journey you took in this. It’s amazing and it blew my mind to read it, because at the end of each chapter, the way you bring it to a place where, this is what I have to wrestle with, this is what we have to wrestle with. You have this great thing in here when you are… The woman you were with, I guess, before you met the incredible Nicole, who is your wife, also from South Carolina, and it takes place in a strip club. And you said, I’ll just read this piece I’m talking about, all right?
Baynard Woods: Sure.
Marc Steiner: “Me and Candy, a white girl, and Syreeta, who, you know, is Black, were talking at work one night. Candy said her parents weren’t racist, because her mom had been raised by a Black woman, Blake,” who was your girlfriend then, “said. Syreeta laughed so hard she spit out her drink. ‘Your mama is just like the men who come in here and believe we love them.’ I laughed, but I recognized something I’d not noticed before, something about how the strip club worked. The men who went in there weren’t paying for a naked body, they were paying for a flattering fantasy. They wanted to believe the woman would want to spend time with them even if they hadn’t been working as strippers. It reminded me of my Grandmother Woods’s illusion that Africans were happy to have been enslaved; she’d tell me how lucky they were to have been brought to America and how much they loved Ole Marse. The fantasy of love in this sort of racism is not incidental, it is an essential feature. If we can tell ourselves that the people we oppress love us and are happy about it, then we can justify that oppression.” I mean, the idea of taking a strip club and making and showing the analogy between oppression of women and a strip club and that of Black folks in America was really interesting. And as you answer that, talk about that, talk about when you really came to that realization.
Baynard Woods: Man, I guess I came to the realization in that moment of when I first heard the story. But as with so many things in this book, you have a brief realization, and then the way whiteness works, like a tide, it washes it away quickly. And so you’re no longer aware because my own sexism and racism and stuff was what I’d been raised in and felt safer than something other than that. But it did really strike me. My mother always would tell me stories about having been raised by a woman named Slim. And her mother was generally a very pretty cold person, and I started to realize that my grandmother outsourced the love of her children to this Black woman. But my mom then gained something else through that. That was also part of what I think my grandparents were paying for, this sense that like, oh, well I understand Black people and things weren’t hard for them then, really, Slim told me that.
And it’s like, well, they weren’t in a position to tell you the truth. How many employees tell their boss how much they hate the job? Why was “Take This Job and Shove it” such a big hit? Because everyone wants to tell their boss to go to hell. And it’s the same in that situation, but the power dynamics were even so much different and so much worse. I mean, things that we don’t think about in that period. My mom would say, in Greenville, when they tried to make Slim go to the back of the bus I insisted on going with her, but she wouldn’t let me because it would make it worse for her. And it’s not like I don’t believe her with that, but I think she had no way to have an accurate view of what was happening.
And I think they’ve blocked out. I asked her, there was a TV movie last time I saw her about Emmett Till. And so I asked her and my mother-in-law, so what do y’all remember about this? Oh, nothing, absolutely nothing at all. And I do find that hard to believe, but I feel like they block it out because they don’t want to see it or they didn’t have to see it. That every person of color would have to step off of the sidewalk to let a white person pass in their town. I think they didn’t even notice that.
Marc Steiner: Of course not.
Baynard Woods: Unless someone didn’t, and then they’d noticed it.
Marc Steiner: Then they’d noticed it. Right.
Baynard Woods: But as long as it happened according to the way it was supposed to happen, they didn’t notice it. And similarly, so for instance, I was living off of Blake in that situation, she was paying me the money she was making. I got to go off and be a romantic Percy Shelly writer or whatever while she was a better writer than I, and she was working, and it was really in my interest to not think too deeply about the dynamics of that situation.
Marc Steiner: But you have thought about it now, obviously.
Baynard Woods: Yeah. Certainly.
Marc Steiner: It’s in the book. There’s so much here, and it is really difficult sometimes to [figure out] what to read. I could read the whole book, but then you wouldn’t read it yourself, which you need to do, people who are watching and listening to this. But I was thinking about how these legacies symbolically never leave us. And I thought about it in terms of the ring that I see on Nicole’s hand all the time and realizing when you wrote about this ring, the legacy of that ring, how the engagement ring itself is wrapped up in enslavement, wrapped up in the history of America, and is wrapped up between the two of you, and it’s wrapped up in your lives as South Carolinians and that ring is there. Talk a bit about that. I mean, to me, that was the screaming symbolism of everything that connects us to that madness, to this madness.
Baynard Woods: Yeah. And especially it being gold, and it highlights the role of wealth in all of this. So when I was proposing to, then my girlfriend, Nicole, my mom gave me the ring that my dad’s mother had given him to give to her, my mom. And the story was it had been in our family for seven generations, and that was like, oh, a thing of pride, that was cool. It was made before there were machines, it was made before… But as I learned in reporting the book, only three generations ago – Because my grandfather was sort of a generation older than my grandmother, and so at least on one side of my family only three generations ago – They were involved in Klan terrorism, and four generations ago were slave holders. And so seven generations, what was the horrendous abuse and violence and control involved in the production of that ring and in the giving of that ring? And it symbolized, as I was saying, the way that enslaving families would marry enslaving families.
It was a union between these, also at a time when women had very, very few rights. And so there was also, as I did my rough math, sometime around seven generations ago would’ve been around the time that Mary Wollstonecraft was writing A Vindication of the Rights of Women. And so it was a symbol of this woman agreeing to be the property of this man as well, to some extent, a lesser extent than those other people that she was considering property. And so it was this whole chain of the illusion of ownership of other people and the way that that creates social bonds and also then distorts all of our social bonds, and all of our… When people say, well, my family were kindly slave owners, I believe. That is just impossible.
Marc Steiner: Right.
Baynard Woods: That’s just not a possible situation that one could have because you believe you own someone. That is in itself an unkind relationship.
Marc Steiner: What you’re just saying now, you describe it with another point in the book, enslavement as a concentration camp and living in the midst of a concentration camp. Not just living in the midst of a concentration camp – It was horrendous enough for my family who was killed there for a period of 10 years, whatever that number was – But for generations. Generations living, running in a concentration camp. What that does to your consciousness, what it does to the people that you kept in that concentration camp.
Baynard Woods: Yeah. I mean, and I don’t want to in any way diminish the unique evil involved in the Holocaust and the concentration camps in Europe. But I do think that what you said is really important. That was a very, very short-lived regime of ’33 to ’45. And this was from 1660 in South Carolina, officially, and they were mainly enslaving Native people before that. But so from early, we’ll say 1619, up through 1865, and then you create this heavily, this apartheid system, which was itself too extreme for the Nazi jurists. When they were trying to come up with their race separation laws, they looked at Arkansas and they said, whoa, that’s too much. We can’t have that kind of –
Marc Steiner: [crosstalk] Right.
Baynard Woods: Because they thought that some German blood would help purify Jews racially, whereas Americans had the one drop sort of thing. But we’re still so different now, the problem is we need to adopt more of the model that Germans have had since then of never again, and of really trying to memorialize it and recognize that evil to make it happen. But we had a 400 year totalitarian regime, and we say the South will rise again instead of never again. And like you said, we think of the evil of listening to some beautiful classical music while the concentration camp’s going on around outside you. This was the daily life for centuries of my family and of so many of our families. And people still go to these places to get married today because it’s a beautiful sight. Monstrous.
Marc Steiner: I can’t even imagine that.
Baynard Woods: Monstrous.
Marc Steiner: I can’t even imagine that. So there’s another piece later on in the book, and it’s a few paragraphs long, but I really want to read it. You alluded to, and we talked a bit about the history of your family and the enslavement and Reconstruction and instituting segregation, and this is something you wrote, and you were reflecting on what happened in Baltimore, and I’ll just start here.
“I felt silly, aware of all the things that people go through, whether reporters covering rural war zones or Black people attacked by police in West Baltimore or women terrorized by the sexual violence of men. I knew my trauma was nothing in comparison, and I didn’t want to think of myself as the kind of wussy white guy reporter who sees the violence of racism and gets all weak at the knees. But I was. Something was wrong with me.
“The furies of whiteness were haunting me. I had to expiate the sins of my family, I felt, even while recognizing the absurdity of this quest. At the least, I had to know more precisely what atrocities my family had committed so I could make an accounting of what they had bequeathed to me.
“In this reflection, I realized that my own name was like a Confederate monument perched above every story I wrote, and I had to, at the very least, know the miasma the names bore.
“Online, I started looking through the so-called slave schedules, census and tax documents for slavers and the people they held in bondage. In 1860, I quickly learned, the Baynards had held 781 people in bondage.
“The Woodses, at the time, held only about twenty-three people in bondage. Then the absurdity of my own formulation struck me: in comparison to the eight hundred people that my Grandmother’s family, the Baileys, had enslaved, I found myself using the word ‘only’ to limit the twenty-three people the Woodses felt entitled to control in every respect.”
I could go on, there so much here about thinking about the horrors of slavery. But I’d like you to really explore here for everyone, what you do in the book as well, what it means for somebody like you, coming from that legacy to wrestle with this, to come to the changes you came to and how you got there, and how that could translate into something you think may be larger than that. It goes beyond Baynard Woods but into society, given everything we’re facing, given January the 6th and more.
Baynard Woods: Yeah. Maybe I’ll walk through a little bit of –
Marc Steiner: I threw a lot out there, I’m sorry.
Baynard Woods: Yeah. No, I’ll walk through a little bit. So that passage came immediately after Charlottesville. And I had been with my co-writer on I Got a Monster, Brandon Soderberg, who was working as my editor at the time. We were in the march that the car drove into and killed Heather Heyer five years ago this month. But the amount of violence we saw that day was just extreme and unrelenting from the minute we got there to the minute we left and it was over the statues, the same statues that I was taught to revere. Statues of Lee and Jackson. My doctor diagnosed me with PTSD. But that was the second stage. And when Dylan Roof went to Charleston right after the Baltimore uprising here in 2015 and massacred nine Black churchgoers, that broke something open in me and made me realize that the way that I thought I had escaped South Carolina and all that, that I hadn’t and that I couldn’t. That we had to confront it and couldn’t escape it.
He grew up 10 miles from me, Dylann Roof. That bowl cut he had, like every kid on my street had that haircut when we were growing up. So it almost felt like that Jordan Peele movie, Us, where part of you gets left behind. You try to repress it and it becomes a distorted monstrous version of yourself that tries to destroy you. And that was what that felt like, seeing him go to all of these places that I’d seen as a kid. Historical sites, but he was treating them as pilgrimages. To go to these Confederate sites and plantation sites before committing this murder and assassination of a public official, Clementa Pinckney, the preacher in the church was also a state senator. And so I saw the face of my great-grandfather for the first time in Dylan Roof’s face. And I saw my own face in other ways for the first time in that face. And I knew it was something that was going to continue to haunt us unless we tried to deal with it. And we have to, in a larger political way.
And so the third thing then that happens after those two is I’m already writing the book, deeply involved in the process, and I’m researching the overthrow of Reconstruction in 1876, in which a group of people called the Red Shirts, who’d previously been the Klan, and after that was disbanded by federal law enforcement, they became Rifle Clubs, essentially the Oathkeepers, the Three Percenters, the Proud Boys. And then they all united with these Red Shirts to storm the Capitol, occupy it, and overthrow the government. And they were successful in a way that they weren’t successful yet on the January 6th attempt to do exactly the same thing.
But seeing the ways that these repeated, there’s the famous Seamus Heaney line that Obama liked a lot, sometimes history and hope rhyme. And I was like, history and hate also rhyme. And we’re seeing this happening right now. And so I do think that we need to find larger ways to… White people who want to be better can’t just say, we’re done with it, we’ve moved up North, we’ve moved along, everything’s fine. We’ve got to find ways to dismantle whiteness, which is essentially a criminal conspiracy to afford power to us over other people. Afford power based on a racial category that was purely invented. And thinking of it as a criminal conspiracy helped me, because when people say, well, my family didn’t own slaves, I’m not like you, yeah, you South Carolina people are weird.
Marc Steiner: Right.
Baynard Woods: Or, I wasn’t around then even if my family did. In federal law to be part of a criminal conspiracy you don’t have to have been there at the beginning. You don’t have to have been an instituting member of it, and in fact, you don’t even have to benefit. Think of all the mobsters who thought they were going to benefit by a conspiracy and are instead at the bottom of a river or whatever. And so it’s not saying that white people have had perfect lives, as a lot of people have sort of asked, but it’s saying that we hold onto a hierarchical system that is intended to benefit us. In fact, it is intended to just control all of us.
And so that’s the other thing that can maybe, if we start to try to abolish whiteness, the way that it works in our own psychology, we might also see that it doesn’t benefit us at all. If we look at it as a zero sum, are we better off than Black people are under this? Then sure, maybe. But if we look at it, actually, are we being benefited? We’re being greatly harmed every day. Here in Baltimore, imagine what the city would be without the racist drug war and all of the racist policies that divide our city, spend all of the funding on police, on imprisonment. When I got arrested in South Carolina for smoking weed in the late ’80s, I got off a lot easier than a person of color would’ve.
But had it not been for the racist drug war, I wouldn’t have been arrested in the first place, and those resources could have been used to make our community a much better community.
Jonathan Metzel writes about this in Dying of Whiteness, and Heather McGee in The Sum of Us. And her example’s great, how the white people would rather fill in a swimming pool than share the swimming pool, and so the white kids aren’t able to swim either. And that’s what whiteness does to us, but we have to see it clearly and think about what it’s done to our psychology in order to have any hope of overcoming it. Because we have to fight it directly rather than just say, I’m moving on from it.
Marc Steiner: So I was thinking about you presenting this book and the places you presented this book and the conversations you have about this book. And I was thinking about a good friend of mine who I actually sent this book to, his name is Hy Thurman.
Baynard Woods: I’ve spoken with him before, on our old podcast.
Marc Steiner: Yeah. Right. So Hy is an old friend. He was one of the leaders of the Young Patriots, which is a Southern white movement in Chicago in the ’60s. They made alliances with the Panthers, the young Lords, and Brown Berets, and the Red Guard in the original rainbow coalition. And he’s now back in Alabama and organizing in Alabama and in the white community and across racial lines. When you write this book and I think about Hy’s life and your life, they’re different. I mean, he grew up as a poor working-class kid in Appalachia, and you grew up in South Carolina, very different ways, but embedded in that culture. So taking a book like this and these ideas and taking them beyond us having these conversations with “kindred spirits,” how do you think that would play? How does it play in your family?
Baynard Woods: Yeah. Those are great questions. And I mean, what I’m hoping for, who I wrote the book for is somebody like Dylan Roof, or my friend in the book, who gets sent white supremacist pamphlets from David Duke, and whose family was worse off than mine. And so he is like, yeah, of course you don’t have to see this because you’re getting the benefits, but I’m not, and I want them. And by holding onto whiteness as a way to get them. And I think that it’s absolutely necessary. I mean, I put a lot of sex, drugs and rock and roll and stuff in the book.
Marc Steiner: You did. We didn’t talk about that yet.
Baynard Woods: Partly because that’s the contours of my life. And also partly because I want the kids of the people out there who are banning CRT to be sneaking the book under the covers at night and reading it. And that’s who I want to get, is Tucker Carlson’s kids. Hi Tuck. I do think one of the huge problems of the left, or the so-called left, and the centrist Democrats and whatever too, is you don’t see a lot of organizing at NASCAR races and at gun shows. There are a couple of things like John Brown Gun Club, The Redneck Revolt that are really doing this kind of organizing and work, because the reality is that there’s the situation of the people who are so angry and that Trump has got does suck. It isn’t a great situation for them, and Trump and the Trumpists are able to tell them that it’s people of color, it’s immigrants, it’s women, it’s affirmative action. All these things are what’s making your life suck instead of income inequality. The Democrats are giving them nothing there. They’re telling them, well, the world doesn’t really suck.
And all they hear them saying is, look, it doesn’t suck for you because you’re the one with the privilege. And so we’re giving them nothing to believe in, nothing to fight for. The Democrats have become purely managers for the most part. And it’s self-serving. I mean the reality is Biden and Pelosi and stuff, I think, would infinitely rather have Trump than Bernie. Because if they have Trump, then –
Marc Steiner: Interesting.
Baynard Woods: …They’re hashtag resistant instead of just being career hacks who have done nothing but start wars and lock people up all of their lives. And so now they’re suddenly heroes and like the French resistance. Whereas if they have Bernie, then they just look like corporate hacks. And so they’d infinitely rather get to cosplay resistance than have to actually address their own and their corporate interests and all of that.
And so just by saying, we’re just not going to let anything get worse. The Democrats have become the party of, we’re not as bad as those guys. And we have to offer something that says we can get beyond this. And this is where white people shouldn’t be scared to talk to your families about this. Although, someone asked me the other day, do you have any tips on talking to your family after writing this book? I said, no, I had to write a book because I’m terrible at talking to my family. It’s hard to talk to your family, even without race. Talking to your mom can suck sometimes, and especially having hard conversations. And it’s so much harder than talking to someone else.
Marc Steiner: True.
Baynard Woods: But you’re able to free them from an ideology that they’re not even aware that they have. And so it’s like talking to them about the vaccine or something. It is a deadly thing that will kill them and we have to do it, and it’s not that we’re doing it to school them. I always come to everyone, I’m coming to you from a position of deeply flawed… I’m a tremendously flawed person, and this isn’t white fragility, it’s not a human resources manual. White fragility has great ideas in it, but it feels a little bit like you’ve been taken to the principal’s office, and there’s a lot of people that’s just never going to reach.
Marc Steiner: It’s not going to work.
Baynard Woods: And the great academic work that people are doing on race is also a lot of things, is the kind of thing that is not going to reach a lot of people. And so that was one of the reasons I did this, wrote the book like this as a story, was to really try to come to you from where you are.
I’m also fucked up, and we have to acknowledge that we’re fucked up and that we make mistakes. Because it’s the same with men with sexism. If we just pretend that we’re better and harbor all of the stuff in us, we’re not actually going to get better ourselves, but we’re also not going to provide models for the people who are younger than us of how to move forward. How to come out of this place in your life where you’re part of this ideology, and how to move beyond that ideology and go through the really difficult work of trying to dismantle it in yourself.
Marc Steiner: Phew. I have a dozen worth of things we could talk about, but after that riff, man, we should just shut up.
Baynard Woods: All right.
Marc Steiner: No, that was good. No, I think it’s important people realize this book also is this personal journey. It’s about you and your father, you and your family, and his passing from Lou Gehrig’s disease and his becoming a Trump person, and you’re wrestling with him about all this. And also your deep love for him at the same time. And I think that’s the complexity of our existence, which this book really does touch upon, and makes us [inaudible] with our whiteness, but our own humanity. And I think that’s really important. And what you said earlier about fragility a moment ago. I argue with people about this all the time, fragility is not a way to organize people.
Talking about fragility, but talking about the stuff you talk about, which is the reality of what racism does. And this line you have, your line, “Whiteness is a moral pollution that demands expiation. I had to unravel the details of the murder my great-grandfather had committed.” And all of how it’s wrapped up in where we are now, the end of Reconstruction and what that brought to us, but wrapped up in this personal story, is a really unique way of doing it.
Baynard Woods: Yeah. And I mean, it’s such a tough thing when you’re dealing with people that you love. One of the things I noticed was that when white people talk about racism now, we talk about structural racism. Again, because people aren’t generally as willing – Although they’ve become much more so in recent years – To be the Bull Connor types or whatever. So we talk about how it’s structural, but then that lets us off the hook. So we have to realize that it’s structural, but we can’t just be like, oh, it’s structural racism. But that’s what most white people do is then go on with their business. But that structure means that it intersects with all of the love in your life. So many people that you care about. So many of the fond memories that you have. So many of the people that you do love, and you can’t just abandon those people because you disagree with them, unless that might help to sway them over, because those people can then aid to and cause harm to others.
Marc Steiner: Right.
Baynard Woods: I mean, once my dad was on his deathbed – And he died while I was writing the book – I gave myself a caring for him and then working in his hometown of Clarendon County to try to figure out what I could do to undo the murder of Peter Lemon, recognize my great-grandfather’s murder of Peter Lemon and memorialize it and care for my dad. But when he was still able to cause harm and he was still able to vote for Trump or whatever, it was my job to argue with him as much as I could. Because I had to play defense to try to stop that harm in the same way that the anti-fascists in Charlottesville, to come back to that, when the car drove into the crowd, they’d already driven the racists out of town, the white supremacists out of town, for the most part.
And there was a rumor that they were going to regroup and attack a Black apartment complex. And when they marched over, there was a discussion like – And it wasn’t about, you needed white saviors to go save this apartment complex from the Nazis, you didn’t. But it was like these people who live in this apartment complex should get to enjoy their Saturday without having to worry about the Nazis coming there, so we’re going to go get in the middle. And that’s a role we can play with our families. And that moral pollution that needs expiation line, I desperately wanted the book to be called Miasma, which in ancient Greek was an inherited curse. The curse of the house of Atreus that goes down, and a curse that’s passed on from generation to generation. And it was also the word that the slavers in South Carolina called the mists that would rise up from the marsh –
Marc Steiner: Because they were into Greek culture, Roman culture, they were deeply into it.
Baynard Woods: …And they thought that was what caused malaria, bad air, mal air, and they didn’t know about the mosquitoes. So they would leave their plantations in the summertime, leaving the Africans there, often under Muslim overseers, which was an interesting sort of dynamic that allowed African culture to remain more intact. But it seemed like the perfect symbol of the inherited curse that I had gotten. And so trying to figure out that curse and how it worked was an important part of the book. And I mean, one of the things I was most horrified to notice was the slave codes of 1740 in South Carolina after the Stono Rebellion in 1739, really delineated two purposes of law: That law protected white people without binding us, and bound Black people without protecting them.
And when I saw that logic permeated my own psychology. When I was young and was driving drunk and crashed into the car of an older Black driver, and my grandfather got me off because of knowing the cops, I was enacting the same logic of the slave codes of 1740. When Amy Cooper was breaking the law in 2020 by walking her dog without a leash in Central Park, and Christian Cooper was following the law watching birds there, and he asked her to obey the law, she immediately called the police on him because her unconscious belief was the law was supposed to protect her and bind him. And that comes directly from the slave codes of 1740. And so we have to really think about the way that these centuries of totalitarian rule have warped our own sense of the world and made us see the world in really inaccurate ways. And so no wonder we have people clamoring for authoritarian rule, wanting authoritarian rule, because we still have not ever addressed this kind of totalitarian mindset that we maintain.
Marc Steiner: All I can say right now is thank you. I really mean it. And this is a really important book, folks. It’s a really important book. And one that I would encourage folks to read, wrestle with, with family and friends and more. Inheritance: An Autobiography of Whiteness by Baynard Woods. And it is of the moment, what we all have to wrestle with and think about what we’re facing. So Bay, thanks for coming here, really good to see you, man.
Baynard Woods: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me Marc. It’s great to sit here and talk with you. I love it.
Marc Steiner: Always. With or without a beer.
Baynard Woods: Yeah, indeed. Thank you.
Marc Steiner: Good to have you here. And once again, Baynard Woods, thank you so much for being with us. It was a really great discussion. And the book is well worth your read. Again, Inheritance: An Autobiography of Whiteness. Check it out, and share it with your friends and talk about it. It’s a really very serious and important piece of work.
So please write to me here at firstname.lastname@example.org, let me know what you thought about today’s program and what you’d like us to cover, and I will write you right back, and we’ll go back and forth and see what we can do about all that. And so with the folks here at The Real News, Dwayne Gladden, Kada Rivera, Stephen Frank, who make this show hum, I’m Marc Steiner for The Real News Network. Thanks for joining us, and take care.