Monday, April 16, 2012

Honoring the Late Dr. Joel Olson: "What does Whiteness Mean for White People?"

Joel Olson, a professor at Northern Arizona University whose work I have featured here on more than a few occasions, recently passed away. He was only 43 years old. Olson was the author of The Abolition of White Democracy. There he developed the idea of white racism as central to White (herrenvolk) democracy. Furthermore, Olson posited that blacks were a group of "anti-citizens" who white Americans engaged in mass violence against in order to 1) reinforce racist populist norms, and 2) where violence functioned as a type of social leveler for the imagined fraternity of White Men.

Olson's journal articles and popular writings were also very incisive. His great essay on race, white privilege, and the Occupy Movement will undoubtedly be included in a forthcoming collection of essays about that political moment.

I never met Dr. Olson. But, I would like to do right by his memory and the type of critical scholarship on whiteness which he was engaged in as an intellectual project. We rarely do "theme weeks" here on We Are Respectable Negroes. The loss of Joel calls for a bit of a tribute and reflection. To point, I will be posting a series of essays, found news items, and other pieces that take a critical perspective on Whiteness and white racial identity throughout the week.

There was always a bit of snark and sharpness operating in the spaces between the sentences of The Abolition of White Democracy. Hopefully, I can capture a bit of that energy in my honoring of its author.

As an entry point for Critical Whiteness Week, I offer up the following set of question(s): What does Whiteness mean for white people? What does Whiteness mean for those who are not white? And what does Whiteness mean in "post-racial" America?


Anonymous said...

I read the links to Dr. Olsten.I was not familiar with him or his work. I think it is fitting and commendable that you honor his work and memory.Keep up the good work. Your site is the bomb!

chaunceydevega said...

@anon. Do check out his works. He was going great places.

Constructive Feedback said...

[quote]There he developed the idea of white racism as central to White (herrenvolk) democracy. [/quote]

My Dear Friend Chauncey DeVega:

Be it Dr Olsten or Tim Wise - both experts in telling "Interested Non-Whites", like yourself, the psychological underpinning of how White folks work to retain their genetic phenotype - I am forced to ask a fundamental question that I have crafted based on my observations -

Does he ever talk about NON-WHITE WHITE SUPREMACY?

This is the label that I have coined as I have observed that some Black people have WHITE RACISM CENTRAL TO THEIR BEING.

The thoughts, views, actions and focus of WHITE FOLKS is SUPERIOR to anything that they consider about BLACK PEOPLE.

When they talk about what motivates WHITE PEOPLE to kill Blacks they say that it is RACISM, HATRED and SUPERIORITY.

When asked what makes BLACK PEOPLE kill other Blacks they say that the CONDITIONS THAT WHITE FOLKS put BLACKS into has created conditions of POVERTY and "Lack Of Opportunity".

Do you see where I am going with this Bro?

All the while they are fighting against WHITE SUPREMACY they build up the fortress of BLACK INFERIORITY. Regardless of how much favorable progressive control they have customized their local circumstances - they will STILL point to streaming WHITE RACISM as the cause for the present ailments. Even among their own children who are only 15 years old - born in 1997.

Surely this psychological effect is a worthy off-shoot of your studies?

Anonymous said...

I think the problem that the (average) white OWS activist has is the same problem most white people have: they don't know as much as they think they do about racial issues. If my experience is anything to go by, the history education kids get in school is designed to assuage white feelings and avoid controversy - and most don't question what they're told (or the ways in which it's presented).

For example, when my daughter was in 4th grade, her (suburban Ohio) class did a unit on "The First Ohioans," which focused on the native peoples of the region from the ice age - 1200 AD. At the end of the unit, the kids created miniature wigwams out of popsicle sticks, toothpicks, etc. As you can imagine, the resulting creations were pretty crude.

I knew (from prior experience with her brother), that the following unit would be on the European voyages of exploration (and conquest), so this seemingly innocuous project irritated me for several reasons:

1) the materials and skill level of the kids guaranteed that the "primitive" nature of early Native American wigwams would be exaggerated.

2) there was no comparison of wigwams with the dwellings that rural white Europeans lived in at a comparable time in history; thus implying the Native people of Ohio were uniquely primitive (have 4th grade suburban kids ever been asked to recreate a Celtic hut with popsicle sticks and toothpicks? Can't say for sure, but I doubt it).

3) the jump to European explorers with their (comparatively) sophisticated ships and weapons doubled down on the "primitive" impression... making the subsequent European conquest appear like the natural order of things.

4) Native people were presented as ancient relics, rather than the ancestors of still-living, modern people.

5) the subsequent "explorers" unit discussed the conquest of the Aztecs and Incas, but did NOT explore the fate of the Shawnee (or other tribes that settled in the Ohio region) - thus eliminating any uncomfortable discussion about the land currently being occupied by the kids and their families (like, maybe the original inhabitants just faded away or wandered off, vs. succumbing to European diseases, war and/or being forcibly removed from their lands).

The irony is that the unit was intended to be respectful and inclusive... but it was a good example of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

To answer your question, "What does whiteness mean for white people?" It means that you can live inside a self-affirming bubble, where you never have to learn that being superfically non-racist isn't the same as being anti-racist.

chaunceydevega said...

@Anon. Sustaining the normativity of "folks like us" as a superior referent to those "other" people. Mighty comfy.

Weird Beard said...

@constructive feedback
The premise of your logic seems to revolve around people/groups taking responsibility for themselves/their group, and not blaming others. I contend that it is much more common in the black community for individuals to have an awareness and responsibility associated with the awareness of their race.
On the other hand, I contend that many white folks take no responsibility for their race, and have little awareness of it. You would be wise to stop chasing racism chasers and pushing white non-white white supremecy and instead focus on the biggest deficit in racial awareness/responsibility which in my view clearly rests in the white community.

Adam GH said...

The question of extremism seems an important one in evaluating the white racial frame. It is easy for me to feel swaths of heroism emanating from this white abolitionist, but I imagine being alive at the time, I would do little but hold a candle in my heart for such causes.

I think the thing that I do more often (as pretty much a cop-op for genuine political engagement) to take ownership of my whiteness is to accept that any violence done unto me is in some sense deserved by my complicity and engagement which enhance and encourage inequality in many ways. How do both white and black alike come to terms with these things? Changing the system from inside the system while benefiting from the system seems to be an insane perspective to take....

Do you have any perspective on all this kind of white guilt?

Weird Beard said...

@ Adam
For the most part, how I see white guilt function is that people become aware of some racial dynamics and then feel guilty for their part in it. White guilt is a speed bump that generally has to be gotten over. The question to ask is 'what good does your white guilt do anybody?' For the most part, white guilt in and of itself is pointless. It can be negative if it serves to detract from the racial issues at hand and again takes the spotlight and makes it all about white people. White guilt can be functional if it is gotten over, or dysfunctional if one gets stuck in it. Feeling guilty is not the goal, racial awareness and a cessation of oppressive attitudes and behaviors is much more desireable.

whitelady said...

First, I just love this:
"It means that you can live inside a self-affirming bubble, where you never have to learn that being superfically non-racist isn't the same as being anti-racist."

I think this is well said. I recently worked with someone who didn't think something was racist because, basically, people weren't supposed to be racist, so why assume this one thing was racist. Yeah, ok, put your head back into the sand.

As for white guilt, for me it is an acknowledgement that horrible things happened. I'm glad someone else mentioned native americans - they often get overlooked in the horrors of white people. It amazes me the amount of forgetting that has happened.

I guess I feel more shame than guilt. But to me it is a way of saying, I remember. There's nothing I can do to correct the past, but the best thing I can do is remember.

As for being white, probably because I'm white, to me there are degrees of whiteness. I'm second generation on one side and third on the other, and I think as a result I feel less white than those whose families go way back.

It is an odd thing to say, but it is how I feel. I guess I want to disassociate myself with "white white people". So for me, I guess, whiteness is about "other" white people. They are for the people who don't eat "ethnic" food at home (including "Italian", because that is ethnic to them). They haven't been exposed to minorities (say via school) or even issues about class or minorities (say via college).

Which I guess means they are not me. :) I am SO glad my middle school was half black, half white. I learned so much during those years. Nothing specific per se, but "stuff." I guess I try to make myself out better than other white people because of it. (esp those I went to school with and didn't learn anything).

As I'm typing all this, I realize it really boils down to the fact that I don't want to be part of "whiteness" because I'm ashamed of other white people (the "white white people"). I don't want to be like "them".

Anonymous said...

Hello. I had the pleasure of studying with Dr. Olson (or Joel, as literally everyone at NAU addressed him) over several years, from 2003 through 2008. He was and will continue to be an inspiration to all who knew him. People can say what they like about Joel, but first and foremost, he was a deep thinker, a caring & compassionate soul, an inspiring educator, and a dedicated family man. Please respect his memory by reading his work before criticizing it.

Fred said...

I met Joel Olson, perhaps 2 years before I heard of his passing, which was a real shock. Joel was an anti-racist engaged in the struggle in support of immigrants in Arizona. It was a privilege to meet such a wonderful man at Blue Stockings in NYC. I did film his presentation but I'm not sure It still is posted on the web.