From Kolchin, 2002. “Whiteness studies the new history of Race in America.”
Suddenly whiteness studies are everywhere. The rapid proliferation of a genre that appears to have come out of nowhere is little short of astonishing: a recent keyword search on my university library’s electronic catalog yielded fifty-one books containing the word “whiteness” in their titles, almost all published in the past decade and most published in the past five years.1 All around us, American historians and scholars in related disciplines from sociology and law to cultural studies and education are writ- ing books with titles such as The White Scourge, How the Irish Became White, Making Whiteness, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, and Critical White Studies.2 Although the term “whiteness studies” might at first glance suggest works that pro- mote white identity or constitute part of a racist backlash against multiculturalism and “political correctness,” virtually all the whiteness studies authors seek to confront white privilege-that is, racism-and virtually all identify at some level with the political Left. Most of them see a close link between their scholarly efforts and the goal of creating a more humane social order…
One of the most striking features of many whiteness studies works is their subjective character, their postmodern accentuation of self. Often the authors supplement anal- ysis and prescriptive proposals with personal anecdotes, recollections, and rumina- tions-sometimes, but by no means always, confined to an introduction or conclusion. George Lipsitz, for example, provides a long personal account beginning with his reaction as a child living in New Jersey to the murder of a civil rights worker in 1963 and moving on to his current determination, as an adult in California, to resist “racist attacks on communities of color” abetted by “the mendacity and mean- ness of Governor Pete Wilson.” Ruth Frankenberg begins her book with an autobio- graphical discussion of how as a white feminist she struggled with charges of racism. In detailing how Jews became white, Karen Brodkin not only discusses her own childhood and the question of Jewishness in an autobiographical introduction, but throughout the volume writes explicitly as a Jew (noting, for example, that “prevail- ing classifications . . . have sometimes assigned us to the white race”). Roediger begins The Wages of Whiteness with an account of how he came to reject the racism he had taken for granted as a child. “Until very recently,” he observes, “I would have skipped all this autobiographical material, sure that my ideas on race and the white working class grew out of conscious reflection based on historical research. But much of that reflection led back to what my early years might have taught me…. My own youthful experiences . .. could have given me the central themes of this book.”29 Even when they do not engage in such autobiographical exercises-and historians are usually the most reticent of the whiteness studies authors in this regard-virtually all of these authors display a highly didactic tone and a tendency to blend policy pro- posals with historical analysis. Of course, they are hardly alone in producing present- minded or partisan work; as Peter Novick and others have shown, even the most avowedly “objective” works of history have been ideologically laden. Few historians have been so eager openly to mix scholarly analysis with prescriptive advice, however, or to proclaim their political goals so bluntly as those engaged in the study of white- ness. Thus, Jacobson, the most restrained of the authors under review, suggests that “perhaps the most far-reaching ambition” of Whiteness of a Different Color is “to help loosen the grip of race,” and Hale, asserting that “integration . . . is our only future,” proposes “a newly imagined integration [that] would incorporate black autonomy, authority, and subjectivity.” Ending The Invention of the White Race with a hope for the future, Allen declares that “perhaps in the impending renewal of the struggle of the ‘common people’ and the ‘Titans,’ the Great Safety Valve of white-skin privileges may finally come to be seen and rejected by laboring-class European-Americans as the incubus that for three centuries has paralyzed their will in defense of their class interests vis-a-vis those of the ruling class.” These authors wear their hearts on their sleeves.30 Those present-minded concerns help explain why it is in the 1990s that there has been such an explosion of work on whiteness. As in other fields, that work is in part self-propelling: once a significant body of scholarship on a topic appears, it acquires a life of its own. But underlying the new interest in white power, privilege, and identity there is evident an intense discouragement over the persistence of racism, the unex- pected renewal of nationalism, and the collapse of progressive movements for social change that characterize the current era. Jacobson points to the “ethnic revival” in America among groups that deny white privilege and see themselves as victims and concludes that “racism now appears not anomalous to the working of American democracy, but fundamental to it.” Noting the “chastened and disspirited mood of contemporary American liberalism,” Roediger observes that “the absence of a liberal labor vote-both because so few workers are now organized and because a majority of those in white households containing a union member have voted for Reagan and Bush over the last three elections-makes prospects for an ongoing mildly progres- sive, class-based alliance inauspicious.” A sense of political disillusionment and a con- viction that class-based efforts to remake the world have been tried and found wanting link Roediger’s perception of the bleak current situation with his under- standing of the past: “the historical record of antiracist achievements of coalitions for economic reform,” he laments, “is quite modest.” In whiteness, Roediger and other authors see the latest answer to the old question (and its more modern variants) posed by Werner Sombart in 1906, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” Only through a confrontation with whiteness, they suggest, can a revitalized Ameri- can Left emerge.
Because their work is so heavily prescriptive, important clues to the whiteness studies authors’ understanding of whiteness emerge from what they suggest should be done about it. Pushing the logic of its constructed nature to its ultimate conclu- sion are those, Roediger and Ignatiev foremost, who call for the “abolition” of white- ness. Asserting that “whiteness, like royalty, threatens to arrange human society by the rules of animal breeding,” Ignatiev and John Garvey, who since 1992 have served as coeditors of the journal Race Traitor, proclaim that “the key to solving the social problems of our age is to abolish the white race…. Treason to whiteness is loyalty humanity.” Central to this abolitionist goal is belief in the moral emptiness of white- ness: “There is Italian culture . . . but there is no ‘white culture’-unless you mean Wonderbread and television game shows,” pronounces Race Traitor. “Whiteness is nothing but the expression of race privilege.” Distinguishing sharply between white- ness and blackness-he capitalizes “Black” and “Blackness” but not “white” and “whiteness”-Roediger agrees with Ignatiev on the emptiness of whiteness: “It is not merely that whiteness is oppressive and false,” he explains; “it is that whiteness is nothing but oppressive and false.” Noting that “we speak of African American culture and community, and rightly so,” Roediger exhibits some momentary unease at cele- brating “Blackness” while condemning “whiteness”-“neither whiteness nor Black- ness is a scientific (or natural) racial category”-but in the end insists that “the former is infinitely more false, and precisely because of that falsity, more dangerous, than the latter.” As a result, even though all race is socially constructed, the overrid- ing need is “to attack whiteness as a destructive ideology rather than to attack the con- cept of race abstractly.” Hale agrees. “Would America be American without its white people?” she asks at the end of Making Whiteness. “No. It would be something better, the fulfillment of what we postpone by calling a dream. “32 Precisely what “abolishing whiteness” means is open to question, however, in part because the meaning of “whiteness” is similarly open. Ignatiev argues that the word “racism” is “useless” because it has too many meanings, but one could suggest that there is also a hierarchy of meanings for abolishing whiteness (based on a hierarchy of meanings for whiteness itself) from rejecting white privilege (or racism), to rejecting white “identity” (that it matters whether one is white), to claiming that there is no such thing as being white, to seeing whiteness as an evil to be combated. On a practi- cal level, there is a need to be clear on what one is being asked to reject.33 There is also a practical political issue that, given the policy concerns of so many of the whiteness studies authors, demands consideration. In the revised version of The Wages of Whiteness, Roediger expresses dismay at charges that he is “down on white people” and counters that “there is, of course, not the slightest animosity toward peo- ple who are categorized as white in Wages of Whiteness.” True enough, but there is a thin line between saying that whiteness is evil and saying that whites are evil, and it is easy to see how Roediger and Ignatiev can be misunderstood on this score. They make a legitimate distinction between black and white as nonparallel terms, pointing out that there is a black (and an Asian American and an Italian American) culture but not a white culture. This argument holds, but only up to a point: there is no one black (or Asian American) culture, not every black person is culturally “black,” and as Jacobson shows, the distinction between cultural and racial definitions of ethnic identity is so tenuous that at times it appears nonexistent. Equally important, there is a serious political problem with first proclaiming that race is arbitrary and then argu- ing that to identify as white is reprehensible but to identify as black is virtuous.
Indeed, such an argument is less likely to dampen white racism than to fuel a sense of white ethnic identity-and victimhood-of the type that the journalist Tony Hor- witz describes so graphically in his recent book, Confederates in the Attic.34 The most obvious solution to this problem is to challenge the desirability of any racial identification, black as well as white. The British sociologist Paul Gilroy sug- gests that it is time to abolish “race” itself, not just whiteness, and the historian Mia Bay, raising the question of “anti-racist racism,” suggests that “the concept of race is virtually inseparable from the idea of a hierarchy among the races.”35 Many of the nonhistorian whiteness studies authors, however, reject the notion of abolishing whiteness in favor, not of a more general abolition of racial identification, but of the substitution of a new, “good” whiteness for the old racist version. “If whiteness is emptied of any content other than that which is associated with racism or capital- ism,” suggests Frankenberg, “this leaves progressive whites apparently without a gene- alogy.” George Yidice, who teaches cultural studies, agrees that whites need some form of white ethnic identification. Suggesting that the abolitionist position “seems more wishful thinking than carefully thought-out strategy,” he argues that “declaring nonwhiteness … is not really an option for many whites in precarious positions” and proposes instead “a rearticulation of whiteness” based on “imagining nonracist and nonnormativist ways of being white.” Warning of conservative efforts to capitalize on feelings of white victimhood, Joe L. Kincheloe and Shirley R. Steinberg, scholars whose interests span education and cultural studies, assert “the necessity of creating a positive, proud, attractive, antiracist white identity.”3
If it is easy to see why many of these scholars are uneasy about asking whites to renounce their whiteness while celebrating everyone else’s multicultural ethnic diver- sity, there are reasons why encouraging people to identify with a reconfigured “good” whiteness seems even more problematical. To begin with, this approach implies that racism stems primarily from misunderstanding and ignorance, and that the solution to it therefore lies more in changing minds than in confronting interests. Equally important, because positing the goal of creating a new and better whiteness implicitly accepts the legitimacy of racial identification, it comes close to vitiating race’s con- structed character itself. And finally, since, as Bay points out, every racial identifica- tion implies a negative judgment of outsiders-feeling that it is “good” to be white (or black or Asian) inevitably implies there is something less good about being non-white (or nonblack or non-Asian)-encouraging a renewed sense of whiteness is unlikely to promote a more equitable or harmonious social order. In short, neither the goal of abolishing whiteness alone nor that of promoting a more positive white- ness seems especially promising. The different meanings of whiteness and its aboli- tion are once again pertinent. Repudiating white privilege is one thing, but it is hard to imagine a successful assault on whiteness in the sense of people’s self-identification as white except within the broader context of breaking down racial identification in general.