When is Whiteness Studies an (and not an) Anti-Racist project?

2. This difficulty might explain my reluctance to embrace whiteness studies as a political project, even in its critical form. At the same time, I am aware that we can construct different genealogies of whiteness studies, and our starting points would be different. My starting point would always be the work of Black feminists, especially Audre Lorde, whose book Sister Outsider, reminds us of exactly why studying whiteness is necessary for anti-racism. Any critical genealogy of whiteness studies, for me, must begin with the direct political address of Black feminists such as Lorde, rather than later work by white academics on representations of whiteness or on how white people experience their whiteness (Frankenburg 1993, Dyer 1997). This is not to say such work is not important. But such work needs to be framed as following from the earlier critique. Whiteness studies, that is, if it is to be more than ‘about’ whiteness, begins with the Black critique of how whiteness works as a form of racial privilege, as well as the effects of that privilege on the bodies of those who are recogised as black. As Lorde shows us, the production of whiteness works precisely by assigning race to others: to study whiteness, as a racialised position, is hence already to contest its dominance, how it functions as a ‘mythical norm’ (1984: 116). Whiteness studies makes that which is invisible visible: though for non-whites, the project has to be described differently: it would be about making what can already be seen, visible in a different way.

-Sarah Ahmed from: “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism” (Borderlands, Vol 3:2, 2004. http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol3no2_2004/ahmed_declarations.htm)

The above is from Sarah Ahmed’s essay, “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism” (Borderlands, Vol 3:2, 2004. http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol3no2_2004/ahmed_declarations.htm). It is a wonderful essay that my friend Jennifer made me aware of (thanks Jennifer!) . Her abstract states:

This paper examines six different modes for declaring whiteness used within academic writing, public culture and government policy, arguing that such declarations are non-performative: they do not do what they say. The paper offers a general critique of the mode of declaration, in which ‘admissions’ of ‘bad practice’ are taken up as signs of ‘good practice’, as well as a more specific critique of how whiteness studies constitutes itself through such declarations. The declarative mode involves a fantasy of transcendence in which ‘what’ is transcended is the very ‘thing’ admitted to in the declaration (for example, if we are say that we are racists, then we are not racists, as racists do not know they are racists). By investigating declarative speech acts, the paper offers a critique of the self-reflexive turn in whiteness studies, suggesting that we should not rush too quickly beyond the exposure of racism by turning towards whiteness as a marked category, by identifying ‘what white people can do’ , by describing good practice, or even by assuming that whiteness studies can provide the conditions of anti-racism. Declarations of whiteness could be described as ”unhappy performatives’, the conditions are not in place that would allow such declarations to do what they say. (Borderlands, Vol 3:2, 2004. http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol3no2_2004/ahmed_declarations.htm)

For me, “making whiteness visible” as a central point to whiteness studies in the West has always bothered me. I guess as a black racialized subject in the USA, myself and my family members have never known whiteness to be INVISIBLE, so it kind of annoys me. Then again, when it’s presented this way (“invisible) it makes it as if the audience for whiteness studies are those white racialized subjects who are unaware of whiteness; the audience is not “me.”

Ahmed is right, at the end of point 2 of her essay, when she speaks of naming whiteness through a different type of language. My literary work is about how to make whiteness visible to WHITES, through a language that is “comfortable” to the white audience, versus language that I am comfortable with. I literally have to translate my “angry black woman” emotions (it’s not really “angry”, but that’s how I have been constructed as) into formal and non-threatening language. I’ve always known about whiteness, always tried to talk about it duringK-12 and in undergrad at Dartmouth College, but I used “my” language and not the “formal” or “comfortable” language of the white middle-class college educated racial status quo. Not using this language has always gotten me into trouble. When I was 15 years old, I told my white English teacher that I couldn’t understand Grapes of Wrath and how I was supposed to sympathize with the protagonist. After all, he was singing a song that started off with, “I spied a nigger,” and I simply couldn’t stomach it (hard to read when you’re the only black girl in an entire school system). Her response to me was that I was not “sophisticated” enough to understand the language of Steinbeck (how insulting).

Currently, I am a PhD student. I tell people I’m doing critical race and whiteness studies, as it relates to food.  But seriously, I’m NOT at UC Davis to really learn about whiteness. I have viscerally known it since I was a young child. I’m in graduate school getting my PhD to learn how to speak about whiteness (more specifically, how it manifests in vegan food politics), using the language of the “master” so I don’t “upset” or “anger” the white folk. It’s a tough line to dance on and I often feel like I am a “sell-out” because I put so much time and energy into trying to prove to the white racial status quo that whiteness is a horrible “unnamed” problem in the USA. I’m pretty much writing a dissertation to prove that black female vegans have always been aware of this thing called whiteness (as well as various forms of racism and colonialism) and it clearly manifests in their entry into, and praxis of, vegan activism.

Collectively, the black women vegan activists I have chosen to study are creating knowledge systems that speak against/to the white middle class [vegan] norm. I am writing this dissertation because for the last 5 years, I have received numerous emails and blog posting from white identified people who are quite irate and annoyed that I am attempting to name whiteness within veganism. Those who are not directly irate or annoyed with me simply write, asking, “What does race have to do with veganism?” Except for one black identified 14 year old girl from the USA, I have never received such questions (or rather, inquisitions) from racialized non-white minorities. Every other day, I am asking myself if my dissertation work is really anti-racist project or is it just a project catering to the emotions of white middle class vegans who claim to not “get it”? How can I shift my project away from this direction? Or, should I be shifting it at all?

If you have a chance to read Ahmed’s essay, let me know what you think. I’m particularly interested in those of you who are engaged in critical whiteness and/or anti-racist studies scholarship in White western academy.

0 thoughts on “When is Whiteness Studies an (and not an) Anti-Racist project?

  1. As a member of the white middle-class college educated racial status quo, I can attest that the code for “I’m actually going to kick your @$%” in white formal language is inconveniently similar to the informal tense of “I have a strong opinion about this topic” in every other code. The result is a fear by targeted whites that they are wearing the sign for “scapegoat” tattooed in the color of their skin, and any attempt to distinctly modify their personal identity away from the stereotype of white privilege will be met with anger at their refusal to provide an outlet to others for this anger. In actuality, no lynching is planned, but from the white experience, this informal anger code carries with it formal white implication of retribution because they are outsiders to the group. In white code, threat remains unsaid unless it is genuinely planned for and therefore absolutely must be threatened. Everything is about control, so creating a threat is the same as acting on it because that is how control is levied in a society about class – you threaten because it’s a show of intent. In a more open experience of intimacy, you fight and you make up. In a context of being made to feel the outsider, the additional threat of retrubution is much more acute because whites are very aware that the status and the history of race relations in America dictates that whites not only have no value to other oppressed other cultures, but that they are perceived individually as the source for this problem globally. This is not something that say an “angry black woman” would readily assume and so she might believe her words do not carry this unsaid threat to scapegoat the white person she is speaking to.

    To put this in some sort of context, most of the whites I know have experienced being not only individually threatened, but actually physically and mentally retaliated against – symbolically – by blacks. It’s true that being white is imbued with all sorts of undeserved privilege, but to ignore the prior actual retribution a white person has already experienced while in conversation with them is about as effective as a white person ignoring racism against other cultures. The difference is, a white person who is clueless about their privilege isn’t necessarily communicating intent for retaliation or active harm. That’s obnoxious and a sign of the problem, but the pattern of violent retribution is an active threat. That’s where the fear comes from — the scilla and charybdis of being either harmed for being representationally privileged and clueless, or else attacked for not fitting the black-accepted code of the easy-to-hate overt and token racist white in black society. This is the most difficult trench a multicultural inclined white person must cross, because the pressure against him or her from both white and black homogeneous society is just that fierce.

    PS: I disliked Grapes of Wrath. It was terse, unromantic, and unrelatable.

  2. When Alice Walker critiqued white feminists and coined the term Womanist I doubt that she was concerned about how to articulate her ideas without stepping on any white feminists’ toes.

    I think critiquing whiteness as “other “is fantastic. It’s time to turn the tables around in all fields, not just in Anthropology, etc. I guess my question to you would be what are your intentions? If you are interested in social movements then a critique TO WHITES about how “whiteness” manifests itself in vegan social movements may not reach many white folk as they may not feel a sense of empowerment, as evidenced by the “Anonymous” writer (on Feb 6). Like many white folk, Anonymous has not stepped outside of her own individualism to understand that this is about critiquing white privilege and not her per se. None of us asked to be born into a white Supremist society, white or black, and so we ALL must go through the journey of deconstructing these internalized notions. And yes, those who have been or feel oppressed will feel frustration and anger, and rightly so. The fact that Anonymous focuses on a feeling of being attacked is exactly an indication of her internalized white privilege. I know of some white folks who understand the intensity, frustration and/or anger of non-whites and don’t take it personally (and also they understand that the so called “anger” toward white folk is more often just an expression of intensity). In my opinion, these are the people who can create social change with us.

    Maybe if you frame white privilege in veganism in terms of contradictions and SELF NEGATION (i.e., white privilege is self-negating to white folk), it may be more palatable. I’m not sure though, given the fact that in our current time in history this holds true only in theory.

    Social movements, however, can grow out of groups who feel that they have something to benefit from. Black Womanist veganism is fresh territory. Why not become a part of or a leader in a social movement with others who identify themselves as such that critiques white privilege in this context as Alice Walker and others did to Feminism? (I assume your new book touches this subject?) I guarantee that eventually some white folks will listen and join.

    1. Lizbut, the purpose of white studies is to attack whites as a group and to make individual whites in the classroom take responsibility for suffering they may or may not benefit from or cause. It’s not white people taking it personally because they haven’t dropped the values of individualism (a value that, by the way, helps build vibrant, bustling communities wherever it appears and is civically supported); it’s white people taking it personally because they’re being scapegoated and stereotyped after laying the groundwork for a multi-cultural America with their tradition of progressivism, pragmatism, anti-foundationalism, and individualism. The very notion that white people should overcome “individualism” is absurd. They should declare it from the rooftops because it’s, frankly, the only value that can keep American from becoming a balkanized (the Soviet reference is intentional) neo-Marxist dystopia.

      Incidentally, Stenbeck’s Oakies are characters, not expressions of Steinbeck’s worldview.

      I guess white people should be sorry for making veganism a viable economic option by making it, you know, profitable and all that?

  3. Thank you for bringing this wonderful essay to our attention. I’m not sure if those who made the previous comments actually read the essay…

    Judith Butler has called the common neo-liberal white reaction to privilege “negative narcissism”, a theme brought up in Ahmed’s essay, and a particularly applicable quality of these previous comments. We are not victims of ‘racism’, nor are we saints for acknowledging our privilege. We are all subject to our racialized structures, and with this in mind, we can take responsibility for these structures and therefore for their dismantling.

    Anyone claiming that ‘white people are being stereotyped’ is one who thinks within the same stereotypical, essentialist paradigm that perpetuates racism and the disturbing racial inequity that has lasted as long as this country’s [USA] existence. I myself am a white woman and urge all other ‘white’ people to realize the privilege that has been violently accorded to them throughout our history. Renounce this, but not for vanity- for the sake of humanity!

    I beg you both to keep an open mind and open heart, and please check out some of the more fundamental works that have started academic interest in whiteness, including the following: http://www.nymbp.org/reference/WhitePrivilege.pdf

    1. Dear person,
      You’re obsession with racism is making you crazy ! I am a white male, raised in a “Christian” home and have NEVER been a race hater. Event though mainstream Christianity (Cathlc) is not Christianity at all ! There is truth and it is hidden. There is an invisible spirit being ..Satan..(Adversary to the ETERNAL ) that Deceives the whole world (Rev 12: 9 ) ! Now you’re thinking I’m crazy ! Every man and women is in captivity by him.
      Academia thinks they know most things…the foolishness of Evolution is proof ! Where is the evidence of all the species that evolved? The earth would be filled w/ such evidence were it truth. All whites racist ? Equally absurd !
      Dr. King spoke of content of character over color. I’m sure HE was aware that not all whites are prejudice…his message was relayed to the masses ’cause of the overwhelming pervasiveness in the country (especially the south ). I was in Dr. King’s “content ” category as a child…respecting all, as I should have been. You should be there too instead of this vain attempt to be the “Fighter of Truth” that all whites are racists ! You can quip “are too ” all you like…you would still be wrong. Seek the real truth. Take an objective view (any good scientist would ) and see what Michael Rood has to say. Put so plainly…we’ve all been duped !
      Who was it Copernicus , (Can’t remember..I’m almost 60) that told Catholicism the earth rotated around the sun. He was persecuted and imprisoned. He was correct. Denying truth doesn’t erase truth. (I’m guessing you’re saying about my view). It;s not my view though…it’s a Godly view. I had to realize…God is right…it is I that am wrong. I had enough correct principles to realize, even as a child…that all men (mankind ) ARE created equal.
      Take your wonderful and hard fought energy and intelligence to the next level…absolute TRUTH. Think it;s impossible ? Get past false piety and sanctimonious nonsense and SEE how truth is hidden. You’ll be ASTONISHED.
      If you’re not….you haven’t found it. (Seek..and you shall find …)
      Whiteness studies ? Listing multiple offenses makes it so ? Look around…evil pervades EVERYWHERE …….’cause mankind wants to rule hjmself. Accuse white people and the adversary remains hidden.

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