The short answer is that it works.
When people of color call us “mayo”, we white people have a reaction that is immediate and disproportionate; our typical, blithe nonchalance in the face of PoC attempting to educate us and engage our empathy in the face of our persistent microaggressions quickly dissipates to reveal contempt, indignity, and defensiveness.
These histrionics, the pantomime of discovering “reverse racism” in the wild, is illustrative of an absurd inner ugliness lurking beneath the veneer of the “colorblind” moderate. I imagine it’s also comical, or maybe cathartic, for PoC who are endlessly assailed with the myth of the objective, neutral, unbiased white moderate.
(I am employing the word “moderate” here to mean anyone who hasn’t explicitly embraced furthering or challenging white supremacy and is unaware and/or unwilling to interrogate their complicity.)
A burgeoning and dynamic economy exists for white people who can memorize and recite a rotary of ways to tell non-whites they are effectively less human than human—standup comedy, “shock jock” radio, “free speech” on college campuses. People of color need to call you “mayo boy” on Twitter to elicit the outrage that the Proud Boys fly people from all over the country to “liberal” campuses to drum up.
Gotta give it to those reverse racists: they worked smarter, not harder.
The long answer involves some analysis of the construct of whiteness and, conveniently enough for me, a historical look at a food that has become synonymous with that construct.
So, to get it out of the way: mayonnaise is great. I love it.
And we really will put mayonnaise on everything. French fries, pasta salads, meatballs, chocolate cake—when I was in college, I would make a sandwich out of crushed up potato chips, a slice of cheese, and two slices of bread with mayo on each.
Ranch dressing. Onion dip. Buffalo wing sauce. Tartar sauce. Thousand island dressing, itself the backbone of the fast food burger racket. Mayonnaise’s reach and influence on the American diet is unquantifiable. It’s everywhere—because at some point, it had to be.
Mayonnaise is cheap, easy to produce, and contains calories. This makes it really valuable in times of scarcity, like during the Great Depression, or in situations where you have to feed a large number of people on a budget; for many working poor in America, the macaroni salad at your church potluck might be the fanciest thing you’ll eat that week, or month. The glop of mayo you get in your pre-wrapped turkey sandwich in the hospital or a work event can be a small but profound comfort—which is think is at the heart of this.
Whether it’s the taste, the mouthfeel, or maybe even the mimicked texture of dairy, I think a part of us, as the American working class, feel comforted by the presence of mayonnaise in our food. It’s abhorrent but typical, like cargo shorts and pop culture deference to Dark Side of the Moon. We have embraced it, equally emphatic and resigned.
Similarly, whiteness is a creation of necessity, devised by the owning class to ensure hegemony by professing some racial and moral common ground with European immigrants to prevent them from forging solidarity with Blacks. Kat Blaque has a good video on this. There’s also this lecture by Dr. Nell Irvin Painter, who wrote The History of White People. (Please don’t take my analysis (or any other white person’s) as canon—these are the people doing the real work to identify and interrogate.)
This class treachery by white laborers has enabled slavery and all its byproducts—Jim Crow, the school-to-prison pipeline, the brutalizing of Black youth by police officers.
As racial landscapes in America changed, whiteness was extended to the Italians, Irish, and other lighter-skinned immigrant populations. The added benefit of their inclusion is that these populations can deny their complicity and refute white supremacy by saying it wasn’t their fault, their families didn’t own slaves, people used to discriminate against them and now “we’ve all moved past that”, etc.
Like mayonnaise, whiteness is everywhere because it has to be. It’s a numbers game. We working whites are just the buffer, the human gerrymandering to keep the means of capital, as notorious stan for slavery John C. Calhoun says in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, “in the hands of the chosen few”.
Which I guess brings us to the question looming within every white working class person confronted with their white privilege: then why does my life still suck? If I have this white privilege, why am I still struggling?
Because whiteness wasn’t created with some altruistic, pluralist intent to rise all boats.
If the current Republican government—which has been emphatically endorsed by the white nationalist movement—cuts food stamps, restricts access to healthcare or furthers the deterioration of our infrastructure with a tax plan that can’t sustain itself, you and I will not get a coupon in the mail exempting us from these changes.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have white privilege, just that we’ve served the purpose our inclusion into whiteness was meant for. We’re the schmuck in the spy film we white people love so much, who gets left to die while the bosses abscond, cackling at the specter of justice escaped yet again. Not every capitalist white nationalist cries on twitter about having to stop going to their gym every time they narrowly avoid actual, lasting consequences for their actions.
There is no home for us in the white nation imagined by Richard Spencer, which would, if ever realized, immediately shuffle the working class into some other pseudoscientific demographic, because capitalism relies on these power disparities to function.
There is no home for us in the autocratic rule of the Republican party, which will continue to starve out and let disease take just enough of us to maintain that buffer of power.
And there is no home for us in the wacky Star Trek mirror world of the Democratic party, which would be just as imperialist, just as carceral, just as brutal as the Republican party, but pin a Susan G. Komen button on the diversity hire who looks the other way while you die of staph in prison.
Our only hope for a more equitable life for those of us who feel denied the promise of American prosperity is the abolition of a social order built upon the artifice of race. It is the only meaningful rejection of your lot in life as the bland, homogenous, catch-all filler of the world.
If we don’t want to be mayonnaise any more, we must be willing to reject the comfort and familiarity of being the default, of centering ourselves. We must be ready willing to be viewed with deserved suspicion by those we are wanting to fight beside and be greeted with tears of betrayal by fellow whites.
Y’know, like how the Subway sandwich artist looks at you when you get mayo on your meatball sub.
We must be willing to shut the fuck up and listen. With that in mind, I’ll end this with a short list of resources:
(cover photo credit: acearchie/Flickr)
Author: Jetta Rae
Founder of Fry Havoc. Can be found on twitter at @jetta_rae