David R. Roediger: Whiteness Studies ... Where Things Stand Now

Roundup: Talking About History
tags: whiteness studies

[David R. Roediger is a professor of African-American studies and history at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His recent books include Working Toward Whiteness: How America's Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey From Ellis Island to the Suburbs (Basic Books, 2005; paperback edition from Perseus Books Group, 2006) and the collection of essays History Against Misery (Charles H. Kerr, 2006).]

The theologian Thandeka tells of being faced with a daunting request during her first meal with a woman she had recently met. The new acquaintance, a descendant of the New England elite, urgently wanted to know "what it felt like to be black." Trusting in the sincerity and openness of her questioner, but knowing that racial understanding had to also involve self-knowledge, Thandeka proposed that the woman play the "race game" before the two met again. The game, as described in Thandeka's brilliant 1999 book Learning to Be White: Money, Race, and God in America (Continuum, 1999), involved the woman temporarily identifying the race of all white people to whom she referred: "my dear white friend," "my beautiful white child," "my white husband," and so on. Thandeka lost her dining companion.

Her account of the "race game" captures much of the project of the scholarly field known as critical whiteness studies. Thandeka's insistence on naming whiteness counters what scholars have called the "invisibility" of the dominant race's political and cultural presence. But the game's move, especially for a scholar as deeply suspicious of fixed racial categories as Thandeka, is far from an essentialist one. In emphasizing that white people have racial identities that are constructed and remarkable rather than natural and normative, she makes "white" an adjective, a recurring reminder of the late cultural critic Edward Said's apt point that "no one today is purely one thing." The presence of whiteness is announced by its complications.

The "race game" also suggests why critical studies of whiteness have been subject to misunderstanding and dismissal. When challenged to experience the game, some white people find it easy enough to dismiss it — and critical whiteness studies generally — as glib and gimmicky. Focusing only on the visibility of whiteness, they miss the complexity of the category, raising fears that critical whiteness studies will too easily descend into playing the race card.

The very way that scholarly work in this area has emerged has ensured as much. If we date the field's presence in academe to the 1990 publication of its foundational text in history, Alexander Saxton's The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (Verso), and to the 1992 publication of its seminal text in literary criticism, Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Harvard University Press), we are reminded that critical studies of whiteness are only now reaching adolescence. The field in the United States has no journals, no professional association (which it does have in Australia), no book series, and no presence as an academic department anywhere. Yet despite its modest proportions, it is at times castigated as if it sits atop the academic food chain, begging to be brought down to size.

That is at least partly because studying whiteness critically has featured dimensions that function as a lightning rod for critics. The tone of writings on whiteness has reflected not a hesitancy born of its shallow roots in academe, but a self-confidence drawing on long traditions of people of color who have studied whiteness as a pressing and puzzling problem, traditions dating from slave folklore and indigenous tales reflecting on contact with the white settler population. The most influential studies from the early 1990s were not specialized ones that could later be deployed to create a broader narrative: Instead, studies that staked out broad claims across time and space came first. Asking why so many studies of the ideology of white racism were circular — racism, the argument often boiled down to, made whites racist — Saxton broke a wide swath of new ground with his analysis of the role that class politics and mass culture played in developing that ideology. Morrison sweepingly argued that literary critics have universalized whiteness and missed the "Africanist presence" in even canonical literature....

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Ed

comments powered by Disqus