Whiteness

If you're coming from my OJ Page, you're probably wondering why I highlighted "white." I'll try to make the explanation brief and make it make sense even if you haven't come from there, and get on to the point of this page.

Why should it matter that I'm white in my opinion over OJ's guilt or innocence? What does my being white have to do with considering the evidence and making a decision? In short, what does race have to do with issues of evaluation, judgment, or epistemology? Hasn't the notion of race itself been shown to be incoherent, self-contradictory, fallacious, without basis in scientific fact or religious doctrine? So what influence can an illusion have on people or their habits of mind?

Well, I suspect that most people would say that the answers are simple: it shouldn't matter, it shouldn't have anything to do with it, nothing, yes, and nothing. But I'm not so sure the answers to these questions are at all simple (and I have a sneaking suspicion that "most people" really means "most white people"). I certainly understand and feel the appeal that the utopic vision of color-blindness underlying these questions and answers has, given the horrible history that race-thinking has been such a constitutive part of in modernity, from the slave trade and slavery to genocide to ethnic cleansing. But I want to question the assumption that if we stop noticing race, if we stop talking about race, if we stop thinking of ourselves as belonging to any race but the human, then the system of racial oppression that those who have identified themselves as white have established will simply go away. I want to question the assumption that to "stop" doing any of these things is a simple and easy process. I want to question the assumption so endemic to "color-blind" thinking on race that the best way to fight racism is to attack the notion of race by showing it to be a cognitive error.

You can see, then, that I fully subscribe to the insight of the social construction of race, but that I do not conflate the idea of "social construction" with the notion of "fallacy" or "cognitive error" or "illusion." I prefer to think the idea of social construction through the lens of such concepts as "ideology," "narrative" and "public fantasy." (But more on that elsewhere.) Thus I can fully agree that I am not "essentially" white (particularly because, as Karen Sacks and Sander Gilman have shown, Jews became white in the New World; David Roediger, Theodore Allen, and Noel Ignatiev have made similar arguments on behalf of Irish immigrants to the U.S. in the nineteenth century--for cites, see below), but at the same time I can not ignore, downplay, or dismiss the privilege being positioned as white tends to bestow, and not only in this country. Nor can I simply assume that how I've been positioned in and by U.S. race discourses and formations has nothing to do with how I experience or reflect upon the world.

So let me pose an alternative set of questions that will bring out why I think my being white has a lot to do with how I understand the OJ case: How does my self-perception and self-identification as "white" (as well as perceptions and identifications by others) affect my perceptions, experiences, thoughts, and judgments, not to mention my life chances? What does thinking of myself as "white" enable me to recognize or cause me to gloss over or elide? What relation does my "whiteness" have to other aspects of my "identity"--class, gender, sexuality, religion, political affiliations, order and area of birth, and on and on to even less obvious ones like the enjoyment I get out of watching The Tick, Daria, South Park, The Simpsons, Dr. Katz, Beavis and Butt-head, and, well, just about anything on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim)?

Here's why I think these questions are better than the first three above. For one thing, those questions take for granted as natural and eternal the existence of "the white race." I would counter that this concept is of relatively recent origin, and that thinking of whiteness or race as some simple biological fact is a mistake. I discuss why this is so at length in my race page, so I'll just say it again briefly here. When I say that it matters that I'm white in how I view the OJ case, I don't mean that my whiteness is this accident of birth that has locked me into an inability to understand people of "other races" ("it's a white thing, I can't understand"). Rather, I mean that being treated as white throughout my entire life (along with a whole range of other socially significant categories--male, middle class, short, Jewish, from upstate NY [no, not just north of NYC--the real thing!], and so on) has contributed toward shaping my habits of mind and emotions, including what I tend to take for granted and my gut reactions, my attitudes toward the police, crime, authority, and the law, where I've lived, who I hang with and am close to, and so on. What I'm saying is that "being white" is a learned phenomenon, and until I started thinking about what kinds of lessons I was learning (usually after a friend took the time to call me out on something), I didn't even recognize that I was being taught, much less question the value of the lessons I had been learning.

For another thing, the first three questions above assume that color-blindness is always in and of itself a good thing. But think about that word. When you are color-blind, you only see in black and white, right? (Well, not exactly, they tell me I'm red/green color blind, although I can almost always tell them apart in real-life situations; still, I don't play those damn orange golf balls! But you can see the point here, right?) Isn't that counter-productive? Doesn't it actually reduce the question of race--the experience of living in a thoroughly racialized society--to a binary, instead of opening it up for interrogation? I can go on with this line of argument (the problems you run into when you reduce the complex history of race discourse, racial formations, and racial oppression to the realms of color, vision, and perception, particularly if you are committed to an anti-racist agenda that amounts to more than diversity management), but let's for the moment take this kind of "I treat people as people" position charitably. I submit that if you are truly committed to color-blindness, then your task shouldn't be to go around lecturing to all those (usually people of color) who are still caught in the grips of race-consciousness, but instead to make the case to whites of the necessity of color-blindness, that is, the recognition and rejection of white racial privilege. (For a less charitable take on "color blindness"--not to mention the first serious response to these comments of mine to date--check out Nkenge Maideyi Zenzele's "The Problem with Color Blindness". See also Ce Cole's "CIVIL RIGHTS AFTERMATH: Two Americas, Black and Middle-Class; Black and Poor".)

For those to whom this way of thinking is new, I would like to recommend a few works that were crucial in advancing the discussion and analysis of "whiteness" and "the white race" and which are indispensable today:


The reason I cite these classics along with the more recent African Americanist work on whiteness is that any exploration of whiteness today is practically worthless if it doesn't engage, question, and respond to them. People of color have had to figure out white people and survive under white supremacy for centuries. These works represent the tip of the iceberg of black thinking on whiteness. Check out collections like Home Girls, This Bridge Called My Back, ...But Some of Us Are Brave, Homegirls, Haciendo Caras: Making Face/Making Soul, Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, Criticism in the Borderlands, The Ethnic Canon, Mapping Multiculturalism, Race Consciousness, and The House that Race Built for a slightly larger portion of the iceberg.

This is not the place to go into my full response to the important work of a journal like Race Traitor or David Roediger's Towards the Abolition of Whiteness or Ian Haney Lopez's White by Law, but I can at least recommend these and other works on the history and politics of whiteness (in no particular order, with no attempt at completeness, and perpetually under construction):



You might also check out the following links:



Just so those who have made it all the way down here know, this essay has been revised and published in a reader called The Social Construction of Race and Ethnicity in the United States, eds. Joan Ferrante and Prince Brown, Jr. (Addison Wesley Longman, 1998). Check it out! It was kept in the second edition, now published by Prentice Hall, for which I'm grateful, although the editors didn't give me a chance to update it....

Last updated: 2/5/05 5:37 pm