Monday, March 14, 2011

Featured Reader Comment: "What Cultural Phenomena Coalesced to Make Us Not Only Aware of Our Whiteness But Also Uneasy in Its Overwhelming Presence?"

I guess my question is: what cultural phenomena coalesced to make us not only aware of our whiteness but also uneasy in its overwhelming presence and the way it asserts its privileges? Your thoughts?

I have promised to bump up interesting comments more often. Leslie M-B's comment is well worth following through on that policy. And of course, I am always open to a good conversation about Whiteness and white racial identity.

The color-line and the "race problem" are almost always framed as "what shall we do with the black/brown/red/yellow people?" As Ethiop offered a century or more ago, I have always preferred the alternative formulation: race (and racism) are problems for and of white folks. Therefore, the correct question should be, "what shall we do with the White people?"

In my own writings on race and American politics, I have tried to crystallize the problem that is Whiteness in the following way. Whiteness is property, privilege, normality, and invisibility. Ultimately, Whiteness is the ability, in this society at this time, to determine how and when one will experience discomfort. Thus, the memes of reverse discrimination, white "victimhood," liberal "racism," and white conservative "oppression," when Whiteness is even a tiny bit unsettled or its primacy challenged. In total, its status quo ante is dominance.

By implication, for signatories to Whiteness it is the greatest of contracts, one where a person gets all of the benefits, but retains both the cover of ignorance and (im)plausible deniability (thus the difference between "White" and "white" when discussing the relationship between Whiteness, power, and white racism).

Leslie M-B's observation demands to be parsed a bit more specifically and carefully.

Are (all/some?) White folks aware of their whiteness? Are White folks uneasy with its presence? Do they deny its privileges?

I have two interventions to offer. First, that so many in the West and elsewhere, of all racial backgrounds, have so internalized what Joe Feagin has termed the white racial frame, that they are utterly incapable of confronting that 1) Whiteness is power and 2) is just one way of being--and which ultimately serves the interests of one group over another. Instead, they idealize Whiteness as their unstated goal and barometer of assimilation, acceptance, self-worth, and humanity.

Second, there is a reluctance by many to call Whiteness what it is--a world organizing, philosophical, moral, ethical, economic, and epoch defining framework in the service of White supremacy. Whiteness cannot exist without dominance of Whites over "subordinate" racial groups. Thus to Noel Ignatiev's powerful observation, that Whiteness must be destroyed if we are to have a just world.

Can Whiteness and White people be salvaged? Your thoughts?


Vesuvian Woman said...

How about a global definition of "White". There are way too many "Others" acting supreme and throwing around racial/cultural slurs as though they are somehow absolved from the burgeoning ranks of color. Or shall we attest this to the ignorance of the masses and further evidence that everbody wants to be "White"?

Plane Ideas said...

Why is it important for Black people to concern ourselves with these questions about whites?

Because they are lethal to Black folks?

Becuase our humanity demands this of us?

Because it is a part of being a human being and a social animal?

This is a outstanding theme and series of posts and comments Yet I am no longer interested in the welfare and dynamics of whiteness etc..

Yet it appears as a Black person in America I don't have this luxury of ignoring whiteness at any level even when perhaps it adds value to my Blackness..WTF

chaunceydevega said...

@Vesuvian. Great point. Complicity is key. And remember as you certainly know, this is about power and not about color.

@Thrasher. Black folks need to learn more about whiteness...oops, I forgot we are already experts by survival necessity. When I began retooling the site you asked about more pieces on black love and lust. I have something that will pique your interest in the coming days. Trust me.

If it goes over well and if my twisted imagination will give birth to it, there may be a new addition to the site in the same fun vein as Brother X-Squared.

CNu said...

CD, I put this up in my own comments thinking about the phenomenon of climate change denial. I believe it perfectly applies to the cultural phenomenon (belief/rhetoric) of whiteness, as well.

On second thought, the term "denial" doesn't really explain what's going on. Humans make political decisions subconsciously and then rationalize those decisions after the fact. Its easier to see if you turn off the sound track and just watch the action.

Suppose a large hyena was eating a dead elephant. A very hungry, smaller hyena approached the large hyena while snarling, standing on its hind feet to look larger, doing everything possible to convince the larger hyena to abandon the elephant and leave. If the large hyena refused to give-up the elephant would we say that he was in "denial"? Of course not. Why do we assume that humans have completely different behavior?

Look the climate change debate as just another political struggle in the animal kingdom.

Look at the Katrina/Fargo agitprop from unabashed hyena in EXACTLY the same light. That's not a hyena in denial, that's a shit-headed hyena articulating an automatic post hoc rationale for his nostalgic recollections of having his head buried deeeeep inside that elephant's backside.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Good post. From what I've seen, though, social class and geography make a big difference in acknowledgement of white privilege. Working-class white people aren't going to be all that willing to see themselves as privileged, and while they should, it's understandable to a degree that they don't. To put it bluntly, if you are living in a trailer park pulling down crud wages in a dead-end job, it's hard to feel advantaged. Of course, that same person does have it better because of their skin color, but their economic circumstances make it easier to deny.

Geography matters, too. In my hometown there were very, very few people of color, and so it was harder on a day-to-day basis to see the difference that race made. Where I live now, in rural Texas, the systematized racial oppression is so visible that white privlege is taken as a given. White people don't deny it, they openly defend it.

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

@Cnu. Great catch. You are always on point doing great stuff. I would love to collaborate at some point.

@Werner. I know. talking to poor and working class whites on this is so hard because they are hyperaware of their own class status precisely because they know that they should be doing better...precisely because they are White. When you are struggling to pay the bills, lectures on life chances and race simply don't cut it.

Oh Crap said...

Can Whiteness and White people be salvaged?

WHICH white people? I would say, this is already a failed project.

Ask that question 100, even 50 years ago. Those clamoring to be "white" were rather notoriously considered n's like our own relatives, and that includes a lot of people: Italians, Greeks, Poles and other E. Euros, Jews, South Asians, East Asians, Arabs, as well as assimilationist Indians and Latinos.

A bunch of the latter four groups are still desperately trying, for some reason.

As for the rest, they're well aware how tenuous their claims to the whiteness they covet really are. I should not have so much fun reminding them on occasion, but I can't help it. I'm all too human, after all.

So can whiteness be salvaged? From what, race-enraged, race-anxious "whites"? Who would want to try?

Feh, would be the point.