Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The grotesque ideology of Whiteness Studies

An amusing fad is the popular site Stuff White People Like ( This notion embraces a wide variety of categories. Some are social activities, such going to farmer’s markets, recycling, Halloween, film festivals (especially those favoring “indie” items not likely to appear at the local multiplex), Facebook, and the TED Conference, There are favored TV shows, such as Conan O’Brien, Sarah Silverman, Arrested Development, Glee, the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, and Mad Men. Other preferences are National Public Radio, The Onion, the Sunday New York Times, and David Sedaris.

Then there are products, such as scarves, sweaters, New Balance Shoes, Ray Ban Wayfarers, vintage clothing, bumper stickers, Moleskine Notebooks, Vespa scooters, and the Toyota Prius.

Musical tastes include pretending to like classical music and favoring black music that black people don’t listen to anymore (e.g. Bob Marley). People in this class are wont to try to learn a foreign language, but get testy when you try to speak it to them because they haven’t learned it very well.

And of course there are comestibles, such as hummus, sea salt, expensive sandwiches, Asian fusion food, sushi, wine, microbrewery beverages, vegan and vegetarian eating, and things bought at Whole Foods.

And one mustn’t forget support for the ideological principles that are deemed to hold all this stuff together: diversity, “awareness,” hating corporations, threatening to move to Canada, having gay friends, and knowing what is best for poor people.

Of course I share some of these tastes too. However, the main point is that those who rally to these enthusiasms are not the broad category of white people as such. Instead, they make up a subset of individuals who are generally well-educated, fairly well off, and as a rule inclined to adopt politically correct views. Archie Bunker types would definitely not go for much of this stuff.

Not covered, at least so far, at the site is one interesting characteristic: these folks commonly express white guilt. The advantage of this tactic is that it permits one to be thought of as self-critical, without requiring any real action in order to improve the status of minorities. Indeed, it is usually unnecessary to go to the trouble of having any close friends of another race.

Recently a discipline or pseudodiscipline has arisen in academia called “whiteness studies.” Emerging in the early 1990s, this tendency purports to study the cultural, historical, and sociological aspects of people identified as white, and the "social construction" of whiteness as an ideology tied to social status. As usually practiced, though, it differs fundamentally from other examinations of ethnicity. Black studies celebrates blackness, Chicano studies celebrates Latino culture, women's studies celebrates women, but whiteness studies decries white people as selfish oppressors whose chief aim is the perpetuation of their own privileges and sense of superiority. Even the slightest hint of “white pride” is anathema to the adepts of this trend.

Pioneers in the field include Ruth Frankenberg (White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness, 1993), author and literary critic Toni Morrison (Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, 1992), historian David Roediger (The Wages of Whiteness, 1991), and, most recently, the Princeton historian Nell Irvin Painter (The History of White People, 2010).

As of 2004, according to The Washington Post, at least 30 institutions in the United States including Princeton University, UCLA, the University of New Mexico and University of Massachusetts Amherst offer, or have offered, courses in whiteness studies. This number has grown since that time. Teaching and research around whiteness often overlap with post-colonial theory and orientalism. One source for the trend has been the questioning of the “canon” in literature departments, critiquing the fact that most authors traditionally studied were the dreaded DWEMS (dead white European males). Typical sites are departments of sociology, literature, communications, and cultural and media studies. In addition, the preoccupation has come to infest the fields of music history, art history, dance history, humor studies, philosophy, linguistics, and folklore.

Inspired by postmodernism and historicism, whiteness studies foregrounds the origins of the concept of racial superiority, which is said to have been concocted in order to justify colonialism, imperialism, and discrimination against non-whites. Yet herein lies a paradox, because for a long time now, “enlightened” opinion has insisted that race is a phantom consisting of a series of pseudo-categories. Yet if race doesn’t exist, how can whiteness, that horrible thing, exist? Logically one might assume that those who cherish their whiteness are delusional. Yet the theoreticians of whiteness know that in most cases this is not so.

Academics engaged in the critique of whiteness address such issues as the nature of white identity and of white privilege, the historical process by which a white racial identity was created, the relation of culture to white identity, and possible processes of social change as they affect white identity.

A particular low point in this realm is found among those who openly proclaim race treason. As a vehicle for their views, they have founded a periodical named Race Traitor. Proponents hold that as a marker of a social status within the United States whiteness is conferred upon people in exchange for an expectation of loyalty to what is considered an oppressive social order. Ostensibly, this loyalty has taken a variety of forms over time: suppression of slave rebellions, participation in patrols for runaways, maintenance of race exclusionary unions, participation in riots, support for racist violence, and participation in acts of violence during the settling of western North America. Like currency, the value of this privilege (for the powerful) depends on the reliability of "white skin" as a marker for social consent. With a sufficient phalanx of "counterfeit whites" resisting racism and capitalism, the writers in this vein argue, the privilege will be withdrawn or will splinter, prompting an era of conflict and social redefinition. This vision recalls the “helter-skelter” preached by the serial killer Charles Manson. Without such a convulsive period, these race-treason folks argue, progress towards social justice will be impossible. This must not happen; one must adhere firmly to the conviction that "treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity."

Once upon a time, Susan Sontag put the view very concisely: "White people are the cancer of the human race." Later she retracted this generalization, but others seem to agree with it.

As the basis for their proposed actions, the Race Traitor folk cite a call by African American writers and activists—notably W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin--for enlightened whites to break solidarity with American racism. Since that racism involves the awarding of various forms of white privilege, some have identified a principle of universal contamination. Every white identity is drawn into the prevailing system of privilege, and is necessarily complicit with it. Only identities which seek to transcend or defy that privilege, they argue, are effectively anti-racist. This argument echoes Baldwin's declaration that, "As long as you think you are white, there's no hope for you.”

Race Traitor advocates have sought to identify role models of race treason by whites in American history. One hero consistently claimed is John Brown, a Northern abolitionist of European descent who used violence to battle slavery in western territories of the United States, ultimately leading a failed but dramatic raid to free slaves and create an armed anti-slavery force at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

The looniness of these views is best explained by group psychology.

A classic account of the consequences of internalizing contempt for one’s own group was Theodor Lessing's 1930 book Der Jüdische Selbsthass ("Jewish Self-hatred"). In Central Europe, the origins of this concept have been traced to the mid-nineteenth century feuding between German Orthodox Jews of the Breslau seminary and Reform Jews. Each side charged the other with betraying Jewish identity, with the Orthodox Jews accusing the Reform Jews of identifying more closely with German Protestantism and German nationalism than with Judaism. There was also discord between German Jews and those residing in eastern Europe. For some German Jews, the Eastern European Jew was stigmatized as the "bad Jew." To some extent this conflict was transferred to the United States as established Jews of German origin became aware of cultural differences separating them from the new arrivals from eastern Europe. For some, Zionism, instilling a new sense of pride, was the answer to these problems of identity.

Today the epithet of “self-hating Jew” is sometimes applied to individuals deemed insufficiently supportive of the state of Israel. Those who are so stigmatized, such as supporters of the group known as J-Street, rebut this as a false charge; they are fully supportive of Israel, but believe that the policies currently being pursued under conservative governments there are actually undermining the long-term interests of the Jewish state.

Some Jewish individuals, or so it is said, prefer to date and marry non-Jewish people. Embarrassed by this proclivity, they may even to seek psychiatric counseling to address it. Perhaps they need not be so concerned. This preference can be explained by citing the anthropological evidence for exogamy--the fact that people in many cultures tend to marry into outgroups.

Kenneth Levin, a Harvard psychiatrist, ascribes Jewish self-hatred to two causes: the Stockholm Syndrome, where "population segments under chronic siege commonly embrace the indictments of their besiegers however bigoted and outrageous," as well as "the psychodynamics of abused children, who almost invariably blame themselves for their predicament, ascribe it to their being ‘bad,’ and nurture fantasies that by becoming ‘good’ they can mollify their abusers and end their torment." The first view seems plausible, the second less so.

At all events parallels have been found in other groups. Historically, black people have tended to decry the Uncle Tom type, an individual who sycophantically identifies with white people. Today some hold that a fear of “acting white” is hampering the educational efforts of young black students.

Members of other ethnic groups, such as Italian-Americans, Polish Americans, and French Canadians in the US, have sometimes changed their surnames in order to blend in more effectively.

For a long time, many gay activists would argue, gay and lesbian people have short-sightedly sought to “pass” by remaining in the closet. Whether through camouflage or conviction, some of these individuals have expressed dislike of “obvious” fags and lezzies who are letting the side down by their purportedly outrageous behavior. Each year in June, the discomfort of these individuals, those who are left, is rekindled by the exhibitionistic displays of a few participants in the Pride Parades.

These parallels notwithstanding, the element of internalized contempt found in some proponents of whiteness studies seems to go farther in embracing a belief in a kind of world-historical conspiracy of domination.

Perhaps this grotesque ideology is ebbing. I certainly hope so.



Blogger Kyle said...

Thank you for this piece. I just had my first encounter with a couple of students who took several Whiteness courses. As I am a white Buddhist, I am looked upon as stealing someone else's culture, and it frankly shook me up to hear these things for the first time.

You can read the first article which was aimed at white Buddhists hereand my rebuttal argument here. From there, the entire conversation went down hill. I have no clue as to how something so horribly misguided has propagated in our Universities. And I am in no way a right wing person, I am a centrist, perhaps a bit left of center, and this all threw me off guard.

Thank you for writing this!

5:15 PM  
Anonymous Symington Kristakos said...

WHiteness studies arose in part out of a reaction to the vast number of racist publications and websites attacking blacks. Nor are these merely ground level attacks. In academia, there is a well financed effort to denigrate blacks funded by such organizations as the Pioneer Fund. In these "scientific" studies the tack is to attribute various social problems of blacks to "biological" and "evolutionary" causes. SO if a black guy ripsoff your hubcaps, it is due to how evil blacks have "evolved" in Africa, a few ten thousand millenia ago. In addition, black history and culture is grotesquely distorted by such "biodiversity" racists.

Meanwhile the picture painted for whites is a virtuous one. The scientific racists never say white criminality is due to white evolution. Hitler's slaughter of 6,000,000 Jews and millions of others (I am not talking combat deaths here or civilian collateral damage) but deliberate systematic genocide, is passed over as just another war. The high production of child pornography in European countries? Oh no, just crazy Europeans. Can;t be due to white "evolution." Get the picture?

Whiteness Studies exposes this systematic racism not merely in society, or online, but the well funded racist "biodiversity" research being pumped out of right-wing think tanks and even academia- as in the case of NY racist Professor Michael Levin.

Whiteness studies exposes the deep-rooted structures and psychology of white racism, just as conservative critiques, and ALSO liberal critiques, tackleblack racists like Jeremiah Wright, or various black academics It seems many white people are quite content to let blacks be bashed, but don't want similar scrutiny, and the same methods to be applied to whites. Until scientific racism disappears, Whiteness Studies has its part to play.

6:44 AM  
Anonymous Emma said...

Pretty effective info, thanks so much for this article.

4:58 AM  
Anonymous Stanley said...

Thank you so much for this. Even a cursory Google search for "whiteness" found me swimming in a sea of self-hatred. I am constantly struck by the contradictions of my fellow Liberals who call for equal rights for all, while demonizing and shaming one particular group. They seem to draw from a narrow view of Human History and attempt to actually question the Humanity of this one particular group. I can't help but notice the parallels between Hitler. As he rose in prominence he targeted the Jews for contempt not for their disenfranchisement, not for their vulnerability, but their "privilege". And it worked. The hypocrisy is blinding, yet the level of contempt pointed at White folks seems to keep growing, unchecked.

11:11 PM  

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