January 26, 2006
The unbearable whiteness of being
Last night, I was put in an awful mood after being told about something being called an "academic discipline," but which makes very little sense.
That is a thing called "whiteness theory."
I guess the attachment of the word "theory" means it's no more proven than evolution or intelligent design, but the idea that there was an academic "theory" involving the "white race" just struck me as incredibly annoying after another long day wasted trying to make sense out of that despicable instrument of emotion-driven machinations we call the human brain.
Right away, I thought, "Well finally, they've done it!"
Racist Nazi crackpots, I assumed, had finally made it into academia with white multiculturalist, identity politics theories.
No, I was told. "Whiteness theory" is based on the premise that whiteness is not racial, but cultural, and premised on privilege and power -- an all-encompassing cultural meme so pervasive as to be said to swallow literally everything we (there I go being "white" -- because I'm assumed by the whiteness theorists to be assuming that everyone who reads this is white) take for granted. Even such things as science, art, logic itself. These are all part of whiteness. The privilege of being white.
"Such things cannot be!" I complained to my outraged white self. Why, this might mean that my very blog is contaminated by my whiteness.
How can I purge an evil so profound?
I tried to research this matter, and I found a number of websites, many of which cite a Harvard Law Review article titled "Whiteness as Property" as a foundation block of whiteness theory. In it, Cheryl Harris (now a UCLA law professor whose faculty web page describes the essay as "highly influential") contends that whiteness is, well, property:
It was a given to my grandmother that being white automatically ensured higher economic returns in the short term, as well as greater economic, political, and social security in the long run. Becoming white meant gaining access to a whole set of public and private privileges that materially and permanently guaranteed basic subsistence needs and, therefore, survival. Becoming white increased the possibility of controlling critical aspects of one's life rather than being the object of others' domination.With all respect to Professor Harris (and what happened to her grandmother was dreadful), I don't think it's reasonable to build an entire academic discipline around the fact that certain black people once felt it was in their interests to try to "pass" as white. In other unfortunate times, Jews used to "pass" as Christian. Even today, closeted gay men often "pass" as "straight." Norah Vincent just wrote a book about her experience "passing" as a man. Lots of immigrants felt a need to "Anglicize" their names (often because they were unpronounceable in this country; my family name was once spelled "Skjeie").
But there I go, scoffing at a new idea just as it's ready to be fully, um, integrated within the cultural mainstream. Despite the fact that it's is still being scoffed at by racist inheritors of white privilege (doubtless I fall into this category anyway by my very act of breathing) "whiteness theory" is now widely recognized in academia, and rapidly gaining ground elsewhere:
That the so-called "white race" is not a scientific category but rather a historically constructed social formation, i.e., a kind of myth and indeed a life-threatening lie, is now widely recognized even in that bastion of white supremacy known as Academia. Not yet a decade old, the new abolitionist movement—the organized effort to abolish the white race as a social category, along with the whole miserabilist system that it does so much to sustain—reflects a widespread and growing grassroots ferment with its own characteristic forms of direct action (such as the "cop watch") and an ebullient periodical literature, exemplified by the lively journal, Race Traitor, whose motto, "Treason to Whiteness Is Loyality to Humanity," is perhaps the best short definition of the new movement.
It is important to note that whiteness is not a racial phenomenon, but an American one. Immigrants to this country who happen to be members of the Caucasian race do not start out white; they become white:
The critical examination of whiteness, academic and not, simply involves the effort to break through the illusion that whiteness is natural, biological, normal, and not crying out for explanation. Instead of accepting what James Baldwin called the "lie of whiteness," many people in lots of different fields and movement activities have tried to productively make it into a problem. When did (some) people come to define themselves as white? In what conditions? How does the lie of whiteness get reproduced? What are its costs politically, morally and culturally? Not surprisingly, thinkers from groups for whom whiteness was and is a problem have taken the lead in studying whiteness in this way. Such study began with slave folktales and American Indian stories of contact with whites. The work of such writers as Baldwin, Cheryl Harris, Ida B. Wells, Américo Paredes, W.E. B. Du Bois, Leslie Silko, and Toni Morrison has deepened such traditions. For radical white writers wishing to forge interracial movements of poor and working people, whiteness has also long been a problem, with Alexander Saxton and Ted Allen making especially full efforts to understand whiteness in order to disillusion whites unable to see past the value of their own skins.I'm still having a tough time seeing past the value of my skin. If it is a form of property, can I sell it, and use the money to move to a country where my whiteness isn't property, or would I be stuck with its "value" there too? I'm not sure I like the idea of having valuable property which can't be sold or alienated, and I'm glad I didn't have to learn about this in my adolescence. I might hate myself more than I do now!
And since I just mentioned adolescents, I might as well report that some of them (at least the ones attending those schools normally thought to be tainted with high-priced whiteness) are having this "whiteness theory" drilled into their guilty little white brains:
Bobby Edwards, the amiable dean for Community and Multicultural Development at Phillips Academy (also known as Andover) in Massachusetts, the country’s oldest boarding school and among its most prestigious, is a case in point. “I do more work than I anticipated around the race issue,” he says ruefully. Edwards teaches a tenth-grade required course called “Life Issues,” which immerses students in the holy trinity of university multiculturalism: race, class, and gender. Many pupils tell Edwards that race is simply not a salient feature in their lives. It will be once Edwards gets through with them, though. He informs his class: “Unless we work to help you have an understanding of the history around this issue, you won’t have a clear understanding of how you really do have a race issue.”I can't begin to understand the thinking that goes on in the minds of parents who shell out huge sums of money to have their children indoctrinated with such poisonous drivel. I can't help wonder, though.... Aren't these boarding schools often used as dumping grounds for the children of rich parents who send the kids there because they don't have time to raise them? To the extent this is true, might it also be true that they don't have time to ascertain what's being tought there?
The idea that "whiteness theory" should be promoted and taught in every university or college as part of "ethnic studies" is not new (so I am embarrassed by my ignorance). Considering that neither are ethnic studies requirements in most schools new, I'd say this is the sort of thing which will soon be a required part of what we call "education" -- everywhere in the United States.
The following comes from a 1997 description of a conference held at the UC Berkeley Department of Comparative Ethnic Studies:
CONFERENCE DESCRIPTION:News of the conference made it into USA Today at the time, but for the most part it went underreported, as boring things usually are. Especially things from that boring town, Berkeley.
It was in Berkeley long ago that I grew tired of being white. Too busy watching my friends die, I guess.
Little did I know how racist I was being.
At least it's all just theoretical.
Speaking of theory, Coco was staring at herself in the mirror for a long time this morning. (I think she's contemplating canine theory.)
posted by Eric on 01.26.06 at 10:10 AM
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