Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Ten Things to Keep in Mind When Talking About How White Men are a "Problem" in the Age of Obama

We are finally talking in an explicit way about what it means to be white (and male) in America. 

Some of these conversations have been necessitated by the country's demographic changes. 

The election of Barack Obama (twice), and the Republican Party's deep devotion to the politics of white racial resentment have also helped to force a national conversation about the meaning of Whiteness.

And as I and others have talked about in great detail, the recent murder sprees in Newtown and Aurora, where young white men have killed people by the dozens, have demanded that we discuss the relationship(s) between white masculinity, gun culture, and violence.

Many white folks have not responded well to these types of conversations.

Despite the opposition and shrill voices, the flurry of discussions online and in the mainstream media about the meaning of Whiteness in the Age of Obama is a positive development.

What was once an inside game of Left leaning cultural critics, scholars, and social justice types is now more fashionable and mainstream. As such, a chorus of voices are joining the conversation.

Many of these new voices are tempted, quite naturally, to call out the deleterious impact of Whiteness and White elites on America (slavery; Jim and Jane Crow; racial inequality; labor market and housing discrimination; wealth inequality; genocide against First Nations people; the Great Recession caused by an almost exclusively white financier and banking class), as well as the world (Colonialism and Imperialism; environmental destruction; two World Wars).

These moves are exhilarating. Yet, they often lack precision, a thinking through of end goals, and a consideration of the long plan going forward.

Despite what some would believe, writing and research about the meaning of Whiteness and White Privilege did not begin with Peggy McIntosh's widely read essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

However, many people have discovered that popular essay and have stopped there.

One must not forget that there is a rich literature on Whiteness, as well as the social, political, and cultural history of "white" people in the West and the Americas.

For example, W.E.B. Du Bois, one of America's greatest intellectuals, was writing about the twin concepts of Whiteness and White Privilege more than one hundred years ago. Andrew Saxton, Theodore Allen, Hubert Harrison, and others did foundational work in thinking about Whiteness, class, politics, and race in the early to mid twentieth century.

More recent scholarship by a range of academics such as Noel Ignatiev, David Roediger, Thandeka, Ruth Frankenberg, Matthew Frye Jacobson, Cheryl Harris, Richard Dyer, Toni Morrison, Ian Haney-Lopez, Charles Mills, George Yancy, Joe Feagin, and Nell Irvin Painter have explored Whiteness--its history, psychology, and meaning--in deep and meaningful ways.

Gifted African-American writer-philosopher-artist-intellectuals like James Baldwin and Richard Wright also talked against Whiteness and the "curious ways" of white folks in their fiction and non-fiction works.

Of course, Tim Wise is one of the foremost public intellectuals and activists discussing Whiteness in the United States today.

I would not expect that the average person who is interested in exploring Whiteness and White Privilege would sit down an become an expert on the topic.

That would be an absurd standard which would prevent many good and insightful voices from participating in this much needed conversation. But, we should all strive to be more rigorous in how we think about and discuss these matters.

As someone who has written about, researched, and thought a great deal about Whiteness, I would like to offer the following suggestions and guidelines for our "national conversation" going forward:

1. When we talk about "Whiteness" what do we mean? Defining terms is essential here. Alternatively, are you talking about white people as individuals? Are you thinking about some sense of shared identity among and between white people? Are you trying to explore the connections between white people and white racism? These are important distinctions.

2. Not all white people are "White" in the same way. How do class, gender, age, sexuality, ability status, ethnicity, and other identities impact a given person's relationship to Whiteness? Have you thought about the difference between an inherently politicized type of White identity that is inseparable from White Privilege, and one where there are individual "white" people who are located in different ways relative to these social institutions?

3. Race is a social construct. It is also real. Race and racism are also relatively recent inventions. Race and its meaning have changed over time in the United States and the West. It also has some long running historical continuities.

When you are talking about "Whiteness is..." or "White people are..." what do you mean specifically? Is this true in some time periods, places, and not others? Is it a constant? How do you separate those categories?

4. White people who are not conscious (or in profound denial) about White Privilege tend to have a very different understanding of how American society actually works as compared to those of us who have thought about and researched these topics. Where do these myths come from? Why do so many white people actually believe that America is a meritocracy, that racism is "dead," or that they are somehow disadvantaged and "oppressed" by "affirmative action" or "reverse-racism?" The answers to these questions are very important in thinking about how we discuss Whiteness with white people.

5. If you are a white person who is writing about Whiteness, are you unconsciously reproducing systems and patterns of White Privilege and Whiteness in your own outreach, scholarship, and activism? As a white person who is writing and thinking about Whiteness, have you taken your own personal accounting of how you are invested in these systems (or not)?

6. When discussing Whiteness and White Privilege, are you also thinking in a systematic way about both institutions and structures? Are you asking yourself about how they relate to one another?

7. It is increasingly common following the Newtown massacre, the Aurora shootings, and in response to the racially resentful conspiranoid fantasies of the Republican Party and the Right in the Age of Obama, that Whiteness and White Masculinity are being described as "pathological" in nature.

We have to be careful here: pathology means something sick, maladaptive, destructive, or disease- like. The label "pathological" is often imposed by the in-group on the out-group, from the powerful on to the less powerful, in order to legitimate and naturalize social inequality and injustice.

But before surrendering to the allure of words such "pathological," we must ask ourselves the following question: how has Whiteness actually hurt its owners economically, politically, or socially?

As Joe Feagin discusses in his book White Party, White Government, White Privilege has long been sustained and supported by the United States government. White people have enjoyed huge transfers of resources to create the suburbs, develop land and property under the Homestead Act, go to college and universities under the G.I. Bill, as well as many other opportunities that were systematically denied to people of color.

White people are also the single wealthiest group, by orders of magnitude, in the United States. This was largely because of how white racism enabled the amassing and transfer of vast amounts of inter-generational wealth within the white community to the exclusion of others.

Given its history, Whiteness may reasonably be viewed as something pathological, violent, unethical, immoral, dangerous, and threatening to those who are not classified as white. However, Whiteness has been enormously beneficial and lucrative to its owners. White elites certainly have benefited from it. Regular white folks, both men and women, have certainly benefited from Whiteness too.

And yes, white elites have also been able to use racism as a wedge issue to hurt the white poor by separating them from people of color with whom they may have common interests. How do these facts complicate a discussion of Whiteness as something that is "pathological?"

8. While there is a public discussion about the meaning of Whiteness in this political and social moment, we must be cautious. Racial inequality is one of the greatest social problems in the United States. Class inequality is gutting the American Dream. White elites have been central to these destructive processes. Some have tried to intervene in positive ways, while most have continued to support these systems because they directly benefit from them.

Because discussing race in post-civil rights America is seen by many people as somehow being "racist," a critical conversation about Whiteness could actually reinforce a fictitious narrative of white victimology and oppression.

Moreover, by recentering Whiteness in our conversations about social justice, there is always the risk that the day-to-day struggles faced by people of color in American society, one that remains steeped in racial inequality, will be overlooked.

9. It is important to discuss Whiteness and how individual white people are invested in White Privilege. One cannot overlook the fact that there are also black and brown folks who are deeply invested in maintaining White Privilege as well.

How does a consideration of people like Clarence Thomas, Herman Cain, Michelle Malkin, Jesse Peterson, Allen West, and others inform your discussions of Whiteness? Is Whiteness just skin deep? Or is there something else much more challenging and problematic going on here?

10. Never forget that "colorblindness" in post civil rights America is a type of common sense logic which actually does the work of white racism by encouraging the public to overlook racial inequality and injustice.

Any discussion of Whiteness and White Privilege should be highly sensitive to this fact. Acknowledging the realities of race and racial inequality are not wrong. The values which are assigned to racial difference, and how some people are invested in normalizing racially unequal outcomes, is the real social problem.


Anne O'Nimmus said...

It seems a similar conversation is being initiated in South Africa: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jan/15/south-africa-race-debate
by a white woman who has naturally sparked controversy.Her letter and some of the rssponses are printed in the article. I'm sure they're channeling WARN! Much of the terminology they use i first read here.
Down amongst the comments is a superb one by commenter "imperium"(not his short first one, but almost an essay).

chaunceydevega said...

@anne. talk about a dust up. post apartheid s. africa still has many who yearn for when the days were good to them. there are some interesting stories from the s. african media about poor whites which echo many of the comments made by white reactionaries here in the u.s.

Razor said...

CD, you put a lot out there.

I did not expect that many of your european-oriented visitors of WARN would be able to respond in a sober and honest manner to your multi-faceted inquiries into the concept of whiteness. I imagine the psychological unpacking of that knapsack could actually be carthartically frightening.

I cannot and will not try to define whiteness. But from my perspective, viewed from the outside, whiteness is a sick and twisted pathology experienced by all who embrace it. At it's most basic level, it is no more than simple human pride, a common flaw found in all men from fall of Adam (for those who believe the biblical story). However, what the world has witnessed as whiteness for about the last six hundred years, is human pride when it is full grown in all of it's satanic splendor and power. Because of it's apparent sucess it even has the appearance of having been ordained of God (and perhaps it has as God raised up Babylon to be great in order to punish Israel, as he foretold his prophets he would, and then utterly destroy his instrument Babylon for their own wickedness) while rejecting God while creating their own False God of White Power and White Privilege within the rubric of Christianity for religious cover (as I have written here before). Whiteness is pathologically and practically for all intents and purposes in it's great pride...become a false, sacreligious and nihilistic pagan and satanic religion.

The ephemeral object of worship here though is the absence of color.

chaunceydevega said...

@razor. these matters are hard for folks to talk about--few of want to look in the mirror, even fewer of us who think we are "progressive" or liberal on these matters especially.

interesting thoughts; i would be curious to hear what you think about the use of the word "pathological" to describe Whiteness as a social construct.

fred c said...

I'd be most comfortable with "Whiteness" being defined as the sum of all of the shared, involuntary attributes that come with being perceived as a Caucasian American.

Individuals vary greatly, in everything from their evaluation of, and their identification with, European culture to their often, but not always, racist attitudes to the rest of the natural world. So maybe the varied and individualized behaviors should get varied descriptive identifiers.

"Whiteness" should be considered aside from "White Privilege." All white Americans benefit from "Whiteness," but many never experience "White Privilege." "Whiteness" is not all positive.

Razor: don't over-think this stuff. Most people, black, white or Puerto Rican, wake up in the morning more or less confused and live lives that are more or less out of control. I know I do. I don't apply any overarching framework to my decision making.

Well, that's only number one, but I think that I've exceeded my column-inches already.

Tom said...

"We are finally talking in an explicit way about what it means to be white (and male) in America. "

Eh ... we are? When are you kicking that off? I don't want to miss it!

(a) My guess: It means whatever it meant before. Personally I feel exactly the same, honest.

(b) White US men have traditionally committed mass murder. We're famous for it. I know, I know, now and then you folks copycat it, same as the Beatles copied Chuck Berry. But it's our THING. It's certainly not new, and not a reaction to the reelection of a white president.

(c) Apart from the nothingness of point b, what else have you got? What discussion? Put something out there! Just intoning solemnly that we gotta have a discussion is not doing it for me.

Tom said...

I don't mean to say anything 'essentialist' here. Future mass murderers, God help us all, could learn more about their heritage by studying John Mohammed than from Starkweather and Whitman together. Mohammad was the Dusty Springfield of genre-crossing mass murderers, if you see what I'm saying. If he hadn't had that stupid kid along, he'd still be out there.

All I'm saying is it's a white men's tradition. You've taken a look at the Icelandic sagas? They read like yesterday's newspaper. You'd never know 700 years have passed.

Tom said...

Also, I forgot to add, oviously Obama is black as well white.

chaunceydevega said...

@Tom. Obama is a black man. There are no pure races. He identifies as such, claims that tradition and history, and is comfortable in his own personhood. If Obama were inmate number 135356 there would be no discussion of his "white" ancestry.

Likewise, if he were trying to catch a cab late at night in NYC or Chicago, he would most certainly be treated as a black man. Let's not deny him his agency.

There is something occurring in these discussions on a national level--just follow the embedded links--will it be sustained? Doubtful. That does not mean that said cultural moment does not tell us something about the potential present in said moments.

chaunceydevega said...

@Fred. Good to hear from you. How is the weather where you are? That is the dilemma, how do you talk to a poor white guy in Appalachia about being white and privileged? How do we translate what we know statistically, i.e. that poor whites have a better chance of moving up to the top of the class and income pyramid in this country than a black person born to the top tier has of staying there?

Ultimately, how do we translate what we know empirically to do something transformative in the service of a "we the people" democracy in the real world?

Tom said...

"If Obama were inmate number 135356 there would be no discussion of his "white" ancestry."

CD that's catchy, but not entirely true. Also as you know ancestry isn't the only issue. I tire of people here imputing to me the tiring idea that I'm making some kind of genetic argument.

Finally ... the man is President. He won twice.

Things are changing. You may not want them to change, the change may in early stages, but they're definitely changing.

It's satisfying to heap scorn on people naive (or in denial) enough to think Obama's election fixes racism. But folks who say Obama's election doesn't indicate any change at all are just as far off base.

chaunceydevega said...

@Tom. Given what we know about the prison industrial complex and racialized sentencing disparities, if you are privy to any discussions about how "white" ancestry moderate sentencing/or racialized coverage of crime, I am all for it.

Who said that post civil rights america is not different from Jim and Jane Crow America. You are being reductionist and silly.

"CD that's catchy, but not entirely true. Also as you know ancestry isn't the only issue. I tire of people here imputing to me the tiring idea that I'm making some kind of genetic argument."

Race is a social construct that is a true lie. Obama is a black man. There are no pure races. As such, I don't get this fixation by some of mentioning trivialities about Obama's white mother. Why the obsession. He is a black man whose mom happened to be white. No biggie.

Tom said...

Well, because you're dishonest and insane let's just agree to disagree.

chaunceydevega said...

@Tom. Time to move along for you. Name calling? Be mature, substantively comment, or marshal up some evidence.

Razor said...

CD, as you have said, whiteness is a social construct, whose most virulent strain is more uniquely American.

It was an ingenious construct that began as a vehicle for economic and social domination by the elite class of europeans over the entire population, including other europeans, with the ironic aid of lower class europeans in exchange for their elevated status and certain privileges at the immeasurable human expense of the people of color who were either captured as indentured slaves or genocidally eliminated. WARN did a great job of covering that period of American history. During that same period all of Europe was colonizing the world with their superior weaponry and penchant for barbarity, greed and guile. Being European had never been better economically and militarily. Along the way these minoriity world people's pride have gone through the roof.

Razor said...

The institution of the barbaric American style slavery with all of the inherent and irreconcilable ethical, moral and religious incongruencies in the attempt to maintain it, took the construct of whiteness from one of simple human pride down the dark road of deep and destructive psychological pathology.

White men and guns, as has been discussed here on WARN, are pathologically connected in myriad ways. However, that pathology is probably best displayed on a macro level in the nihilistic number of nuclear weapons in the hands of a very arrogant, yet fearful and paranoid people.

fred c said...

(Looks like I had one dropped in the changeover. It went something like this.)

Explaining the white thing to white people is a highly charged political enterprise. I'll tackle it one-on-one but I have no general advice.

I remain convinced that job-one is more straightforward. We must learn to know each other. Acknowledge that the bridging of the gap is important and take small steps. Like living in a diverse neighborhood; getting to know the family of the kid on your boy's baseball team; do some community work that will have you rubbing shoulders; attend a mixed race church; anything.

No need to get heroic about it, just do something. There's no good reason why we shouldn't all be friends, and it's much, much harder to demonize your friends.

lokywoky said...

I am just stunned by some of the comments here. I am a white woman and I come here often to reach CD's excellent work, and because I want to work on my own sensitivity regarding my own "white privilege" as it were.

The comments that my whiteness is a "sick and twisted pathology" simply because of my skin color - you know - because I was born this way - strikes me as just the kind of sick and twisted pathology that I thought we were all trying to eliminate through the process of dialogue and understanding. Am I mistaken? Is the accident of my skin color forever a bar to me being able to even try to some kind of rapprochement with people of non-white skin?

If this is how the discussion is going to be, then it is no wonder us "sick and twisted pathological" white people want no part of it.

Let me know when someone wants to talk to those of us who really want to try.

chauncey devega said...

Great points. You know where I stand--race is a true/lie and skin color is not destiny...far from it. But, there is much race essentialism going on here among those folks who have been penalized by such thinking along the colorline.

Ironic ain't it?

fabucat said...

This is a beautiful essay. I'm 54, very white and have spent a lot of my working life serving in what was once a majority African American city (Washington DC). It's been a long journey and an interesting education. I've been blessed with privilege, but I've also been privileged to know some incredible people of all races that I've been able to learn from. By the way, I enjoy that picture of you with your cat.

fabucat said...

Interesting, but even if race were "real", no one is really "pure." For example, a lot of "white" Mediterranean people have African ancestry. A lot of Eastern Europeans have Asian (Mongol) ancestry.

Joe Bosse said...

This is only the second time I've been here, and so I'm sure I've no good reference to the personalities of the people who comment here so I will ignore the very few things I found offensive. I'm undeniably white, the blue eyes are pretty rare otherwise and most of my family has them. But my grandmother on my father's side was Native American, and I listened to her more as a kid then I paid attention to anything else, when we played cowboys and Indians I always wanted to be the Indian. As anti-pc as that is now, it is how we played as kids, and I really never considered myself anything but a person.
When I was in the 4th grade, we had an influx of Haitian immigrants, and there was a bit of culture shock, but not because they were black, it was because they were forced into a completely different culture and nobody knew how to act. I say all this only to point out that this IS the american experience, dealing with the oddities of all our communities.
My parents divorced when I was 11, but even before then we had a Hungarian woman who would come help take care of the younger kids every day, we all loved her, but looking back she was little more than an indentured servant through my grandparents (on my mother's side) lutheran church.
I know it's easy to blame color when there is so much history behind it, and it's certainly more pronounced lately than I've seen in decades. But that's just because the black guy won twice and the lunatics hate differences.
This IS what being a melting pot is all about. It will never be easy. It's just the fastest way towards progress.

Joe Bosse said...

I know an elderly lady named Ms, Scott. She has always been technically free but never worked for anyone but one old southern family, who have ensured she will be well cared for and that she gets a visit at least twice a month from the new younger generations, but she also inspired many others in her years, and my ex girlfriends family still visits once a week after her mother lived with Ms Scott for 5 years while fading into dementia.
The main problem will always be the moneyed interests maintaining the current regime,
Most people are personally decent, it's the large groups of rich assholes you have to watch out for,

chauncey devega said...

that is my cat "niece." but she likes complements and I will pass them along.

lokywoky said...

I didn't notice that I made any claims as to the "pureness" of my supposed race, only my skin color. And therein lies a great deal of the problem. My skin color is not any clue as to any race-claims - which I did not make.

lokywoky said...

Yes, it is ironic. I find it very sad that when people have experienced great persecution or discrimination, they often turn to that exact same sort of behavior as a reaction. I guess I shouldn't be shocked, since it happens in large societal instances and not just in individual circumstances.

I spend a great deal of time defending people of color in discussions among my peers against 'white privilege' and all that entails, even though I am a member of that class myself. Where I live, it is mostly Native Americans who are the largest population of people of color, and they bring a whole other dialogue to the table as you can well understand.

I don't claim to understand even a tiny bit of the discrimination that people of color experience because of it but I do try to at least be aware that I have advantages simply because of my skin color that others do not and act and speak accordingly. I just hope that in my own very small way I can contribute to a more just society.