Whiteness Studies?

26 05 2006

AMHERST, Mass. — Naomi Cairns was among the leaders in the privilege walk, and she wasn’t happy about it.

The exercise, which recently involved Cairns and her classmates in a course at the University of Massachusetts, had two simple rules: When the moderator read a statement that applied to you, you stepped forward; if it didn’t, you stepped back. After the moderator asked if you were certain you could get a bank loan whenever you wanted, Cairns thought, “Oh my God, here we go again,” and took yet another step forward.

“You looked behind you and became really uncomfortable,” said Cairns, a 24-year-old junior who stood at the front of the classroom with other white students. Asian and black students she admired were near the back. “We all started together,” she said, “and now were so separated.”

The privilege walk was part of a course in whiteness studies, a controversial and relatively new academic field that seeks to change how white people think about race. The field is based on a left-leaning interpretation of history by scholars who say the concept of race was created by a rich white European and American elite, and has been used to deny property, power and status to nonwhite groups for two centuries.

I first encountered “whiteness studies” in an Aboriginal Education lecture (where a very similar experiment to that described above was conducted), and while it is presented here as innovative, it appears to have much in common with postcolonialism, which has been around for decades. Indeed, where postcolonialism critically examines how nonwhites have historically been positioned as objects of knowledge (or entertainment) for white colonial powers, in whiteness studies the object of knowledge is “whiteness” itself. As University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee English professor Gregory Jay explains:

“Whiteness Studies” is not an attack on people, whatever their skin color. Instead, “Whiteness Studies” is an attempt to think critically about how white skin preference has operated systematically, structurally, and sometimes unconsciously as a dominant force in American—and indeed in global—society and culture.”

“Whiteness,” Jay maintains, is a political, legal and ideological fiction (drawing upon biological critiques of race). It is rooted historically in the institutionalising of “white supremacy,” beginning in the sixteenth century, where skin colour emerges as a determining factor in citizenship, whether or not one can vote, whom one may or may not marry, and where one may or may not worship. While conventional wisdom holds that the institutionalisation of white privilege came to an end in the civil rights era, Jay contends that

the power of the fiction of “whiteness” continues to the present day, distorting our laws and culture in ways we still fail to recognize. Most whites continue to vehemently deny that they benefit from their skin color. Where once “white supremacy” was a routinely publicized, accepted, and legitimated norm of socio-political and cultural discourse, it is today a silenced reality, a truth that dare not speak its name.The purpose of Whiteness Studies is to expose this silence and this fiction, to make visible the history and practices of white supremacy as found in social life, the law, literature, music, politics, and every other realm of “civilization.”

Further reading:
Whiteness Studies: Deconstructing (the) Race
RACE–the Power of an Illusion. (PBS)
“What Does It Mean to be White?” (Powerpoint)

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