thinking out white

thinking out white

Adam Bishop, Amory Starr

June 2000

Abstract: This paper attempts a grounded contribution to race theory, drawing on classroom experiences and theoretical analysis. It is guided by two goals: the practical implications of race theory for dismantling racism and their usefulness for teaching white American college students about race. It articulates a new theory, and postulates some pedagogic moves.

Wondering how our whiteness is letting us down,  we explored the new American “white studies”.  This paper documents our questions about how whiteness studies itself may be letting us down. We also apply our findings to conceptualizations of anti-racism and to undergraduate education.

conceiving whiteness

While some whites are actively white supremacist, race theorists have long agreed that ordinary whiteness also reproduces racial hierarchies. One of the main goals of scholarship on ordinary whiteness has been to expose it as a historically specific, socially constructed, phenomenon — “infinitely more false” [Roediger 1991] than Blackness.[1]  Reginald Horsman [1981] documents the social, cultural, and political machinations that produced American whiteness and doctrines of manifest destiny. David Roediger’s history of whiteness [1991] documents white working classes’ perplexing choices for whiteness over union strength (even at moments when social revolution was within reach).  Roediger finds that the “wages of whiteness” accruing to ordinary white people are social and psychological, as well as economic.

These histories seem conclusive, but knowing the truth is not enough. With truths staring them full in the face, whites regularly exercise power in ways that flaunt the truth. [Williams 1991] Seeing their contradictions produces few epiphanies among the elite. How can whites engage with truth if the overriding goal of their entire epistemology is maintaining their notions of whiteness as deserved superiority?  There are two reasons why truth does not transform power.  The first reason is that what power does really well is figure out how to perpetuate itself and maintain its privileges; truth is no obstacle. Foucault argues that power actually organizes knowledge regimes to ensure that truth serves it. [1976]) What does white studies need to be if truth isn’t all that powerful in changing white people or whiteness?  The second reason (optimistic but important) is that the truth does suggest change, but it’s not always clear what the alternatives are.  What is the alternative to whiteness as white supremacy?

With the post-civil rights demise of popular white supremacy and the coming to hegemony of non-racist ideals in American public discourse, white privilege became “invisible” to most whites. People of color seem to have relations to racial formations and cultural identity; whites feel culturally and racially neutral.  In this context, anti-racist efforts to get whites to recognize their ongoing power and privilege are organized around bringing whites’ racial whiteness into visibility. At the same time, the Black Power move to cultural separatism supported Afro-centric and other re-valuings of ancient cultures (now pursued in celebrative multiculturalism), which caused progressive whites began to experience their racial neutrality as a lack or absence of culture. [Frankenberg 1993]

Anti-racist work on ordinary whiteness tries to get white people to see themselves as part of the racial formation (embracing the notion that they, too, are raced), accept the legacy of whiteness, and work toward a positive and responsible way to be white. [Frankenberg 1993]  The shift from studying and theorizing race “as a generic subject” to studying whiteness as domination [Hartigan 1997], as  a “reality-distortion field”, or as “social amnesia” [McLaren 1997: 14, 24], centers whites and whiteness in the project of addressing racial inequities. This approach (which Carmichael & Hamilton requested of us in 1967) has several implications. It could be understood as a move away from exotic attentions to “the other” and toward the heart of the problem.  Alternately,  it could be understood as a continuation of privileged folks’ epistemological limitations, self-absorption, and disinterest in thinking about anything other than themselves. [Clifford 1986]

Racism Awareness Training [Katz 1978] and its successors aim to show white people their power, privilege, and unconscious racism and then elicit commitments to anti-racist practices. Racism exists beyond our conscious grasp, deep in the “sinewy depths of our musculature; dipped in the chemical reactions that excite and calm us; structured into the language of our perceptions” and so forth. The struggle against racism is a struggle “in the battleground of our souls” which whites “are afraid to confirm exists, let alone confront”. [McLaren 1997: 21] Because of this incorporation, ordinary whites “constantly make racially meaningful decisions” in everyday life. [López 1996: 193] Sivanandan [1990] critiques this approach for “reduc[ing] social problems to individual solutions [and] pass[ing] off personal satisfaction for political liberation” [104].  Sivanandan is concerned that the separation of race from class and the emphasis on personalistic relationships to oppression permit capitalism to carry on its racist projects.  Nevertheless, Katz’ effort to get whites to examine their own individual relationships to racism has become the hegemonic form of anti-racism.

Meanwhile liberation theory from communities of color centers indigenous epistemology and activity as the necessary liberatory agents.  From an activist perspective, there are important implications to the choice of whether whites should place their energy supporting people of color movements or “deconstructing” whiteness. If whiteness, as Harris [1993] suggests, is crucially a form of property, racial justice looks like the legal distribution of those sorts of property to peoples of color[2] ¾ such work does not require psycho-spiritual analysis of one’s own relationship to whiteness.

Lillian Roybal Rose [1996] concludes from years of leading anti-racist workshops that a necessary but not sufficient component of anti-racist whiteness is the re-discovery of one’s ethnic history. Recovery of such history works to entice people from a culturally problematic identity as white to a positive ethnic identification with a cultural history in which it is appropriate to take pride.  Such recovery can also connect ethnic whites with their own histories of colonial oppression, which can be a basis for identifying with peoples’ experiences of racial oppression as well as for deconstructing whiteness.  Noel Ignatiev’s 1996 How the Irish Became White is a model for this mode of deconstruction.

We have noticed that students of color agree with Rose that whites need to go through the same process they have been through, recovering the history and culture which they have been denied.  Students of color believe that this process will enable whites to feel pride in their culture.  Wondering why students of color see this as important to dealing with racism, we recall that white students are often complaining about being demonized.  Discovering dignified histories and that “Black is beautiful” is crucial for people of color recovering from racist demonization, but the demonization of whiteness is the demonization of racism itself. Affirming that “white is beautiful” (not to mention dignifying white history) is not an appropriate response.  Perhaps what students of color hope for their white colleagues is that a sense of history will reduce the scale of whiteness: Discovering your Scotch identity could replace your sense that you have to own the country.

In the 1980s a new national rhetoric of whiteness (articulated in the Dukakis and other liberal electoral campaigns) focused on the “immigrant” experience as innocent of American race relations. [Alba 1990]  This offered a form of whiteness which locked white supremacy into the past in an attempt to excuse liberal whites from any responsibility for current race relations. Unfortunately, the struggles of immigrant forebears were not invoked in service of a compassionate analysis of the situations faced by people of color, but as part of a new wave of blaming the victim which relegitimized pulling oneself “up by the bootstraps” as the only possible solution to poverty.

In the 1990s whiteness has been positioned as a cultural identity in an already non-racist society, which proposes contradictorily both that the U.S. is non-racist (because those problems have been solved) and that whites now suffer discrimination (at the hands of affirmative action). [Gallagher 1997] This assertion of whiteness as an ethnic culture is a quite different thing than Rose’s urging for whites to discover ethnic histories and Frankenburg’s effort to get whites to acknowledge their relationship to a culture of white supremacy. Whiteness as ethnicity positions whites as equivalent to people of color in cultural terms ¾ a claim seen as nonsensical by historians who map whiteness as a political construction.

Watching the historical shifts in the meanings claimed by whiteness, it becomes clear that race is socially constructed. At the same time, anti-racist workers urge whites to “take responsibility” for a form of whiteness which may stealthily morph into new “racial formations” [Omi & Winant 1986], but which remains in its lethal dominion essentially unchanged. Hartigan [1997] notes a troubling contradiction between emphasizing social construction and encouraging whites to take responsibility for supposedly unchangeable relations to power and privilege.  While exposing the arbitrary formulations of race, we want to fix white people in their whiteness. Whiteness is socially constructed, yet it is hardly allowed to change. Would we recognize liberatory social reconstructions of whiteness were they to occur?

For example, some 1990s shifts are less hideous.  Giroux [1997] argues that quite suddenly white American youth are experiencing themselves as white in complex, highly racialized cultural contexts, such as music and media.  These complex experiences threaten white privilege in quite different ways than economic insecurity.  White youth as cultural critics are participating in unseating white cultural hegemony.  White kids ridicule each other for being “too white”.  And this sensibility is rapidly crossing into other social groups.  Even my mother knows when she’s done something too white.

Multiculturalism, much like colorblindness, is experienced by today’s white college students as a given.  They believe that they are interested in living in a context of diverse peoples and cultural experiences.  As multiculturalism has been coopted, it has lost its radical initial premises (articulated by Mel King & Jesse Jackson in their Rainbow Coalitions) ¾ re-distribution of power and resources to ensure an equitable society. What is today purveyed as multiculturalism by many of our civic and educational institutions is a form of entertainment and consumption, what Angela Davis calls “difference that doesn’t make a difference” [1996]. As Sivanandan points out, “to learn about other people’s cultures is not to learn about the racism of one’s own.” [1990: 68]

Bell hooks [1992] argues that white desire for the music, food, and sexuality of people of color is a form of consumption, of “eating the other”, which is part of white supremacy and colonial relations.  But she also envisions desire as a liberatory combustible.  If whites pursue their desire thoroughly, they will discover the oppression of people of color, the unjust persecution of that which they desire.  This could lead them to join the political struggles of people of color. But has regularized consumption of others’ cultures and cuisines tended to lead to such solidarity?  The cumulative evidence suggests not.  The last decade’s explosion of white adoration for Black rap music has coincided with surging racial incidents on campuses.  It is another “illusion of inclusion”. [King 1981]

Moreover, the strangest thing is that my friends and family are racist, and right after we get done ridiculing each other for our whiteness, we indulge in racist remarks and other forms of racism that dehumanize the very people we try to emulate. Here is the limitation of crossing as a liberatory combustible.   

Multiculturalism requires the willingness to transfer property and authority over that property.  Rights are an important part of such property.  Affirmative action today remains in the hands of white decision-makers.  Rights to education and employment involve property changing hands.  But rights are not enough; land, institutions, and all kinds of capital must be transferred too. Multiculturalism at its most serious supports the rights of sovereignty and ensures that every cultural group controls the institutions (land, economy, education, etc.) needed to ensure they will “survive and thrive” [King 1981].  This was the recognition of Black Power and we think it is still crucial — not only because it is a way to shift life-saving power into the hands of people of color, but also because it challenges the myths of white liberalism head-on. Whites do not get to congratulate themselves on their tolerance while continuing to eat people of color in a thousand ways.  The self-congratulatory colonizer must go home, and may not adopt a native boy on his departure.

While whites fit into multiracial ways of understanding, most do not fit comfortably into multiculturalism. Whites’ participation is not a problem from the perspective of multicultural politics but needs to be addressed when we use multiculturalism as a scheme of social justice or a vision of society. “White culture” would quickly be exhausted by the discovery that it’s a myth with very little “positive” history distinct from its racism. Rediscovering European ethnic histories will be very difficult for whites whose families have lost any ties. The combination of this loss with a high level of European-American amalgamation produces people who describe themselves as having no culture at all.

Our students today believe that a generous slathering of personal “respect” and cross-cultural educational experiences can somehow alleviate the effects of power. The self-image of tolerant whites ultimately creates the space for their hate to be respected while doing little to advance the life chances of people of color. In “Repressive Tolerance” [1965], Marcuse explained how “pure” tolerance “actually protects the already established machinery of discrimination” by according equal protection to parties of “hate”, “humanity”, and damaging aspects of the status quo on the basis that “nobody…is in possession of the truth” (a democratic argument which ignores the necessary conditions of rational discourse). To not be born into the urgent self-preserving need to oppose hate is a luxury.

So we need to think hard about what notion of whiteness we want to pursue as teachers and researchers.  It must respond to a series of factors that shape whites’ identity today: the belief that they have inherited a world (or at least a nation) in which racial discrimination has already been solved; the belief that some whites are exempt from responsibility for race relations (“To be color blind is the highest form of racial false consciousness, a denial of both difference and domination.” [Wolfenstein 1993: 334]); the continued invisibility of white privilege; a new visibility of white racial identity as victim of discrimination; white deference to people of color in some cultural realms; the emotional inaccessibility of white ethnic histories (or their lack of relevance to people of highly mixed European backgrounds); and the nearly hegemonic popularization of anti-racism and multi-culturalism as explicit values among whites.

In the collective views of Roediger [1994] and the journal Race Traitor[3] [see Ignatiev & Garvey, ed. 1996], the very notion of whiteness is crucially constitutive of racial oppression. Race Traitor insists that whiteness must be destroyed, not merely redeployed.  Editors and contributors argue that anti-racism supports racial hierarchy by preserving whiteness. The wages of white anti-racism may be a barrier to doing a decent job at it.  The self-identified anti-racist student who vociferously defends her privilege to travel on the basis that she “really loves” other people and “respects” their culture.  Bonnett [1996] describes this form of supposed anti-racism as “passive” and “altruistic” (a position unavailable to people of color).  McLaren opposes the idea of “a positive white identity, no matter how well intentioned” and argues “against celebrating whiteness in any form.” [1997: 32] A new notion of whiteness as anti-racist can be a whitewash that enables white people to [once again] defend their whiteness and the privileges it brings.

If whiteness cannot be re-covered, what is an alternative?  Race Traitor and other scholarship has proposed that white people might “disaffiliate” [Frye 1983] from the white “club”, “embark[ing] on a daily process of choosing against Whiteness” [López 1996: 193].  This would have two important effects: First, whites would give up privileges arrogated to them on the basis of race.  Second, “defection of enough of its members to make it unreliable as a determinant of behavior” will lead to the “collapse” of the white race.  [Ignatiev & Garvey 1996] It’s not clear how refusing white privilege (such as refusing to be served before people of color in restaurants and stores) is distinct from anti-racism.  Anti-racism is about defying the club, breaking the rules, dropping out of the consensus of deserved privilege.  Moreover, the power remains in the hands of the potential traitor to betray when it’s convenient and still use the privilege when in a hurry.  Traitorship does not automatically puncture our white lifeboats.  Really being a race traitor would cost a lot.  Anti-racism is not so expensive because we get to keep our whiteness. When the chips are down, we would have to find shelter in a strange land.  There might be no going back.

How could whites permanently become race traitors?  One possibility is to invoke creolization, the argument that white U.S. culture and thus whiteness is already completely creolized. [Reagon 1994, Nettleford 1994] The labor of people of color enabled American capital accumulation [Takaki 1979], the Iroquois Confederacy provided the basis for the political system; and American food and music is indebted to those of peoples of color.  John Hartigan describes this process as a “repressed synthesis” [1997]. We can easily observe today that our clothing makes us creoles, and certainly, as Giroux argues, our taste in music.  We have observed young white people today drawing their ideas of strength and passion from images of people of color.  In becoming creole, biological amalgamation is helpful, but neither necessary nor sufficient.  It is unnecessary because requiring it would conflict with concerns for survival of diverse cultures intact.  It is insufficient because skin color hierarchy (or other distinctions) would still be possible.  It is the politicized embrace of the creole, the social insistence that we are not white, which will undermine the operation of white privilege.

Inspired, but still busy “eating the other”, we wonder how to operationalize the transition from crossing over for dinner to committing to betray and fight? One model that might be informative is queer politics.  According to Ertman [2000], queer is an identity, but one which intentionally disrupts outside determinations of identity in order to constantly demonstrate the rigidity and falsity of gender and sexuality categories. [Straight] queers cultivate and nurture ambiguousness about their own sexual identity in order to challenge their own homophobia, face up to that of friends and strangers, and imagine themselves in ways that enable solidarity.  Their solidarity functions to undermine heteronormativity and expand queer territory, which has implications for safety and stigma. “If whites expect to be able to say anything relevant to the self-determination of the black community, it will be necessary for them to destroy their whiteness by becoming members of an oppressed community.” [Cone 1986]

Is race different?  Well, whites have no problem being associated with people of color and their cultures.  (White students even brag about having friends of color and listening to rap music.)  Today, such claims are, in part, a claim to anti-racism.  But such contact has long been regularized and certainly in no way threatens whites’ racial status.  Homophobic perception of guilt by association does not map onto race relations; while straights fantasize about their own sexual purity, whites fantasize about crossing.  Taking responsibility for privilege is a nearly opposite practice for queer and white allies.  Queer allies should push themselves to cross, whites should resist their exoticizing desire to cross.  Race traitor practices of compromising whiteness will look different than queer allies’ practices because hanging out with people of color is not enough to cultivate the impression that they are not white.

Although I have lived in rarefied pale environments where I am not quite white, I have been taught to responsibly acknowledge my white privilege.  So I continue to identify as white, rather than as Arab American. I try to imagine the implications of a different anti-racist formation which instead encouraged responsible so-called whites to seek out and publicize our own biological and cultural impurities and the force and incompleteness of our own assimilation.

Social movement theory has recently insisted that identity is a most basic aspect of social movement participation.  Creolization speaks to the need for identity as well as to the need for a political stance for whites.  As a voluntary move, creole could be an expanding space of identity possibility.  If whites who crossed into Harlem decades ago to dance had identified themselves as creole there would by now be a large space into which former whites could move.  Recent work on identity has challenged identity-based organizing for its essentialism and its constant marginalization of internal minorities as yet another act of power.  In response, Homi K. Bhabha has argued that responsible multiculturalism must not stop at the moment of proclaiming one’s own supposedly unitary identity but must also include disciplined attention to cultural “hybridity”, the “cultures between cultures”. [1996]  Our vision of whites becoming creoles is such a process of working to articulate the hybridities which weave through both whiteness and interracial contacts.

Gloria Anzaldúa [1987] proposes that a transformative space for Chicana/os is the “borderlands” (between nations, cultures, etc.). Extending the model proposed by ethnic studies scholars for the liberation of their own communities could enable the discovery of a transformative cultural zone of [whiteness].  This zone both produces new identities and threatens to outstrip white supremacist attractions through the “exhilaration of cultural cross-dressing”. [Sanchez-Tranquilino & Tagg 1992: 564]  As Butler [1990] argues, the power of drag is its exposure that there are no real women, that gender is an illusory ideal which describes no person’s essence.  Thrilling crossings will indeed confuse the police, and may also confuse [whites] through processes of pleasure more seductive than white privilege.

This creole theory both deconstructs the myth of whiteness and proffers an identity for former whites which does not justify privilege.  McLaren is concerned that “choos[ing] blackness or brownness” could be an attempt to “escape the stigma of whiteness and to avoid responsibility for owning whiteness”. But he argues that it can be done in a “traitorous” way by abandoning white identity in favor of “identifying with and participating in the social struggles of non-white peoples.” [1997: 31] Let us emphasize again, that it is the politicization of inhabiting the borderlands (aware that there is no going home) —not the weekend transgression (although we may begin there)— which offers the promise of deconstructing white power.

Grossberg [1996] rearticulates Clifford’s [1994] explanation of diaspora as demonstrating “the intentionality of identity, its articulation to structures of historical movements (whether forced or chosen, necessary or desired).” If identity is intentional, a response to structures, such a creole theory maximizes the opportunities of such agency toward the project of disassembling the coherence of white supremacy. Renato Rosaldo [1989] proposes that culture is more than a field of difference, it is a field of productivity and creativity.  If ideological components of racism and its practices are to any extent cultural, white agency in creatively forming another culture could be powerful. Sanchez-Tranquilino & Tagg [1992] describe pachuco as, among other things, the process of making Chicanos “visible”.  If one of the problems of white privilege (including cultural takings from people of color) is its invisibility, then cultural practices organized around a creole whiteness would make visible the historical sediment of privilege as well as the at least sometimes liberatory yearnings of actual white people.

A creole embrace of rap would go beyond white youth claiming it as their own culture, and emerge politically as a defense of youth cultures and a confrontation of the underemployment and criminalization of all youth. In Scapegoat Generation [1996] Mike Males argues that youth of color and white youth are being blamed for lots of social problems which statistically are not theirs.  Similarly Holly Sklar [1995] documents how shifts in the U.S. economy are destroying the quality of life of white workers and workers of color alike (workers of color first, of course).  Does this approach once again push race off-stage in favor of a class-based analysis?  Perhaps that is the ultimate consequence of Race Traitor practice.  If white privilege (and thus whiteness) is to be undermined in the political process itself, the solidarity that replaces that separation does look more like class-based social justice.  Once we do not have our whiteness to lose, perhaps we will be able to recognize our common lot with people of color in the face of capitalism rather than defending our racial profit margin.  On an individual level, if whites experience themselves as creoles, race will shift from a philosophical or metaphysical thing to something real and personal, as it is for people of color.

According to Roediger [1991], the word ‘nigger’ was first applied to Irish immigrants because of the hard work that they did.  ‘Nigger work’ was only later associated exclusively with African Americans, as Irish Americans raised their status in the American racial formation.  If ‘nigger’ is an occupational term, white Americans are currently being creolized through the re-niggerization of work.  Formerly decent jobs, such as meatpacking, have been transformed into sweatshop work.  Paperless immigrant workers, whose powerlessness is confirmed by agricultural growers who can poison them at will [Chavez 1993], are imported to work in the slaughterhouses.  But Tyson and other processors have worked out new arrangements which force welfare recipients to accept Tyson workfare or lose benefits entirely.  Thus American citizens of all races can be forced into conditions from which most whites thought they were protected by the color line.  We are becoming creoles because there is less and less whiteness to have.

Creole theory also speaks well to the “heterogeneity of whiteness” [Hartigan 1997: 498].  Hartigan warns scholars to analyze whiteness as “contingent and articulated in registers that exceed the strict operation of domination”.  Seeing whites as creole would better represent [white] cultures as a mixture of domination and desire.  Hooks does not reduce desire to a part of domination and in fact sees it offering complex possibilities.  Even domination, according to Hartigan, cannot be reduced to a “unified ideological order” and a creole understanding of whiteness would help to articulate those complexities.  Hartigan’s own empirical findings on the heterogeneity of whiteness could be better understood both by researchers and by his subjects if we could freely draw on multiple cultural antecedents in explaining [whiteness], rather than trying to explain heterogeneity around a solid axis of whiteness.  If we can position whiteness as a narrative outside of, rather than identical with, creoles, it can become a reference point to dialogue with, rather than a received truth against which deviant forms of whiteness must be explained.  Whiteness could then be theorized as what Hartigan calls a “homogenizing process” which acts on people who are actually complex and multiply constituted.  This theoretical approach is similar to the understanding that genders are socially constructed ideals which exert homogenizing pressure in peoples’ lives and identities.  [Butler 1990]

Simply creolising however, is not the end of the story. Creolization without multiculturalism is bound to subvert back to a racist condition similar to the condition of the U.S. today.  Multiculturalism is necessary for cultural survival of diverse peoples. One major problem with achieving multiculturalism is whites’ resistance to giving up the power and privilege accruing to those with a “possessive investment” in whiteness [Lipsitz 1998].  If the us vs. them mentality were reduced by the creolization of whites, redistribution would look less like robbery in the eyes of whites and more like justice.  New nonwhites would be included in the redistribution of privilege, power, and assets. Poor whites would welcome any redistribution of wealth, and power.  Why would redistribution succeed here when it doesn’t now? As Wolfenstein [1993]  points out, for ruling class interests racism is “a rational means to collective ends” but “irrational and a form of false consciousness” for the white working class.  Perhaps creolization would provide an alternative consciousness for the white working class which could compete with the wages of whiteness.

Coupling creolization with multiculturalism might help medicate the problems fundamental to multiculturalism and creolization when left alone. Multiculturalism needs mutual respect and appreciation of the other in order to work.  Whiteness being what it is, it is not likely to do this.  We think a dynamic creolization of whites into a new nonwhite entity on cultural, political, and even biological levels will open the possibility of interest in and commitment to a redistributive multiculturalism.  This will set new nonwhites on an even keel, and will reduce their ability to use their ethnicity and race as a cover for racism.

Creolized former whites will evolve into non-whites not only in relationship to white supremacy, but also on a personal psychological level. It is not just as equalizer in the minds of creoles, it establishes the creole as non-white in the eyes of the racist white person, which is radically different from pretending that we are all equally privileged in America.  Creolization is different in that privilege is lost forever.  Once you are considered non-white in the eyes of whites, that’s it, you are never white again. This strategy would isolate and shrink the size of the white ruling class.

Creolization saves whites from relativism about the truth of race relations.  Invited into creolization, former whites have an invitation into connection with subordinate texts.  They choose creolization, but like fish invited to hooks, they can’t leave.  After defecting, former whites’ material interests will no longer be with white supremacy.  The choice of creolization ultimately forces people into a non-voluntaristic relationship with justice, they would be dependent on justice, rather than merely choosing an ethical alliance with it.

(re)teaching whiteness

The first step which white studies scholarship leads us to recommend is an acknowledgment of the complexities of whiteness, not only historically, but currently.  White youth today see themselves as very much more open-minded than their parents and they take for granted forms of interracial contact which they imagine their parents would abhor.  We need to be aware that many of our students have already embraced a vision of multiculturalism and are frustrated both by their own seeming “lack” of culture and by the difficulties they perceive in getting to know students of color on campus.

The 1980s model of racism awareness training is not applicable to classrooms today, where most of our white students identify quite vehemently as anti-racists. But since they also see themselves as innocent, white students experience documentation of the ongoing oppression of people of color as “tantamount to a declaration of war” [Fusco 1995: 76] and as “anti-white” [Gallagher 1997].  They feel demonized and defensive.  “My grandparents weren’t even here during slavery.” Trying to convince them that they’re still racist falls flat for several reasons. The first reason is well known: They don’t understand how they can be culpable for racism when they are personally anti-racist. Second, in the face of the level of economic insecurity which our students now face, talking to them about white privilege is hardly convincing (if not mildly reassuring).  We believe that rather than convincing them that they are indeed privileged, we need to engage them as fellow anti-racists and lead them through the implications of that position.

We can argue that their investment in innocence doesn’t do anything effectively anti-racist. We can also affirm their innocence, show them their co-victimization with people of color, and then argue that they must replace innocence with imagination if they are to challenge the economy. In taking this approach we must remember that they are overwhelmed by the myths of personal responsibility, popular wisdom about innate divisiveness of heterogeneity, and a pie they’ve been convinced is too small for justice. We need to address the failure of imagination (quite structured, perhaps), which prevents them from envisioning a co-created nation.  We can also assign white students to work as policymakers, allowing them to take on the anti-racist identity they imagine for themselves and work through its implications.  This exercise helps them move beyond guilt (which they are particularly uncomfortable with when they believe they don’t deserve it).

We find that once students have concluded that we are not yet living in colorblind nirvana, their three most popular recommendations for anti-racist intervention are: information for whites, because racism is caused by “ignorance”; education for people of color, which will address economic inequality and provide mobility for all who want it; and cross-cultural experiences for overcoming the “natural tensions” of difference.  We confront these presumptions by using historical examples to show how racism is constantly enacted in the face of full information, showing how educating workers does not create safe, decent, living-wage jobs, and challenging the idea that cross-cultural opportunities address our own institution’s racist policies and practices.

After teaching students that interpersonal racism is not the whole story and directing their attention to institutional racism we must be careful not to divide students from their personal relationship to race and thus from their sense of agency. We need to induct them into traditions and practices of resistance and change. We must not settle for a situation in which our best work with them on race, class, and gender has little connection with their lives.

Community worker Jack Pittman describes the way that institutions and elders must provide meaningful leadership for young people to induct them into political activism. When Pittman came up in the 1950s and 60s, community adults were actively speaking out and encouraging him to resist oppression. At a key political moment, they involved him in a strategy to challenge segregated private colleges. As part of this strategy, he was one of five Black youth who applied to and attended a local white college. Adults were teaching and supporting youth in making strategic political challenges, which enabled youth to be part of important community struggles. [Starr 1994]

We can provide models for both action and identity. [Tatum 1994] We can connect students with organizations and embrace them into communities which will nurture anti-racism through the many distractions they will face. We can offer the option, in a concrete way, of choosing to walk with the oppressed. Herbert Aptheker [1992] contributes the historical documentation to enable whites to recover anti-racist white heroes, perhaps even a sense of a tradition with which to identify. Such people gave up their own safety in pursuit of racial justice and worked through the meaning of their white identity as a basis for challenging it.  They wanted white Christian America to be moral, inclusive, and just — or as Jews they proposed a competing moral framework, which likewise affirmed a responsibility for providing justice.  These heroes, like most undergraduates today, desperately wanted a whiteness which was not brutal, mean, and wrong. Students can be encouraged to adopt this history as their own ethnic and national heritage.  Committed activists often describe themselves as working for justice because they cannot stand to live their own lives without it.  Community organizer Chris Lee says “as a person of color, you are born into the struggle.  From the day you are born, you know that a struggle is going on and that you have a role to play in it.” [Starr & Robin 1994] We might encourage some of our students to elide their own choice.

Most of the foregoing recommendations are neither new nor novel.  Our novel suggestion is that instead of focusing on showing the truth of whiteness as power, as has been the tendency with white studies, we create a research agenda for white studies that documents and demonstrates the creole nature of whiteness and outlines a practice through which people can discover themselves as creole.  We can offer our students creole identity, which means they don’t have to identify with a demonic whiteness and they can talk about their culture in terms of all that they remember and love.  It will be very uncomfortable for anti-racist “trainers”, as we used to be called, to abandon the task of convincing students to “take responsibility for our privilege as whites” ¾ let alone to abandon our own identity as white. Sklar’s [1995] analysis of the U.S. economy issues us a challenge.  Shall we continue trying to convince white students of their white privilege — handing them their wages of whiteness on a battered old silver-plate platter or shall we try to convince them that they are co-victims and allies with people of color, agents of liberatory culture?


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[1] While race is certainly a social construction, diasporic formations lend a distinct cultural reality to Black and Latino identity. [Reagon 1993]  Even for those uninterested in diasporic connections, people of color in the US have struggled to assert identities which are woven not only from experiences of oppression, but also from their recreation of themselves as “our own nation”. [Gwaltney 1980]  Native Americans, obviously, have distinct, non-diasporic, cultures.

[2] How many different groups?  Which ones?  Will this be an infinite, tribalized, division?  Perhaps not.  Patricia Williams [1991] suggests that so long as we give rights only to people and not to property (rocks, mice, slaves), so long as rights are given and withheld, they are owned and controlled.  Thus we should “give them away” ¾ only when we grant sovereignty to everything will it really become a right.

[3] PO Box 400603, Cambridge MA 02140.