Monday, November 19, 2012
Post Mitt Romney, What Does "Whiteness" Mean to You?
Almost two weeks post election, the media is still fascinated by Mitt Romney's defeat and how America's ostensibly changing racial demographics will doom (or not) the Republican Party to obsolescence. The chattering classes are getting a bit more close to the foundational questions that we as a country should be reflecting upon in this moment.
Last week for example, The New York Times offered up an interesting, albeit brief, exploration of the relationship between immigration and American national identity. There, the amazingly accomplished historian, Nell Irvin Painter, an authority on the history of white people, was given too little time to explore the foundational questions that a longer and more sustained essay would have most certainly allowed her. In fairness, the other essays were insightful as well.
However, not one of these excellent short essays broached the basic question of how the black-white binary is dependent upon the fact that African-Americans are by definition "unassimilable." Blacks folks are not an "ethnic" group as classically defined by Sociology--we are the basement group against which non-blacks (and many Afro-Caribbean immigrants) define their position in the social hierarchy. For at least three centuries, this "public" calculus has remain unchanged in the United States.
Perhaps, such questions are political dynamite in the Age of Obama and post-civil rights multicultural America? This fact would explain the obvious evasion.
Moreover, we are not asking these important questions either:
Are demographics destiny? Do race and ethnicity neatly map onto political attitudes and ideology? Are racial categories static or changing? And how does a consideration of how race is a category defined by both stability and change upset all of this premature doomsday epitaph writing for the preeminent power of Whiteness in American politics?
I believe in first principles. As such, we should always strive to define our terms.
For me, one of the values of writing online is that pedagogy can be transformed into a type of public performance--the great Claire Potter who writes for The Chronicle of Higher Education under the pen name "Tenured Radical" is sponsoring a panel at the ASA conference on that very same topic (I was invited to participate, but regretfully had to decline. The invite was so very much appreciated).
I benefit from writing online in many ways. Primarily, this genre of writing forces me to make the theory laded speech that is common to academics (and others) more transparent. These conversations are also helpful because one can survey the range of common sense understandings surrounding such concepts as race, class, gender, and sexuality which exist in day-to-day life.
Social scientists are trained to the idea of the sociological imagination--ironically, many of them forget the power of the quotidian, and how real folks live these concepts, even if they do not have the vocabulary to describe their lives in such academic terms.
To point. I would suggest that the Mitt Romney postmortem of white people, and the role of a particular type of Whiteness in American politics, is both very premature and misspecified.
Before we work through the details of this error in reasoning by the pundit classes, it is necessary to meditate on some basic matters: "Whiteness" as a term and concept is circulating throughout the public discourse during this political moment; let's try to define the essential attributes of Whiteness before talking about its changing relationship to the future of American politics and social life.
For me, Whiteness is many things. These observations are far from exhaustive.
Whiteness is separate and apart from "white" people. There are many white people--and some people of color--overly identified with and invested in Whiteness. However, the socio-historical and political concept known as Whiteness does not necessarily tell me anything about a given white person.
Whiteness is a type of privilege and property. Whiteness is also typified by invisibility and a sense of normality for its owners. As such, in America, to be "normal" is to be white.
Whiteness is benign and innocent for its owners and allies. Whiteness is also terrifying, violent, destructive, and belligerent towards those who have suffered under it.
How would you define Whiteness? Complete the following sentence if you would: "To me, Whiteness is..."