Whiteness studies  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Whiteness studies is an interdisciplinary arena of inquiry that has developed beginning in the United States, particularly since the late 20th century, and is focused on what proponents describe as the cultural, historical and sociological aspects of people identified as white, and the social construction of "whiteness" as an ideology tied to social status. Pioneers in the field include W. E. B. Du Bois ("Jefferson Davis as a Representative of Civilization", 1890; Darkwater, 1920), James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time, 1963), Theodore W. Allen (The Invention of the White Race, 1976, expanded in 1995), Ruth Frankenberg (White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness, 1993), author and literary critic Toni Morrison (Playing in the Dark, 1992) and historian David Roediger (The Wages of Whiteness, 1991). By the mid-1990s, numerous works across many disciplines analyzed whiteness, and it has since become a topic for academic courses, research and anthologies.

A central tenet of whiteness studies is a reading of history and its effects on the present, inspired by postmodernism and historicism, in which the very concept of racial superiority is said to have been socially constructed in order to justify discrimination against non-whites. Since the 19th century, some writers have argued that the phenotypical significances attributed to specific races are without biological association, and that race is therefore not a valid biological concept. Many scientists have demonstrated that racial theories are based upon an arbitrary clustering of phenotypical categories and customs, and can overlook the problem of gradations between categories. Thomas K. Nakayama and Robert L. Krizek write about whiteness as a "strategic rhetoric," asserting, in the essay "Whiteness: A Strategic Rhetoric", that whiteness is a product of "discursive formation" and a "rhetorical construction". Nakayama and Krizek write, "there is no 'true essence' to 'whiteness': there are only historically contingent constructions of that social location." Nakayama and Krizek also suggest that by naming whiteness, one calls out its centrality and reveals its invisible, central position. Whiteness is considered normal and neutral, therefore, to name whiteness means that one identifies whiteness as a rhetorical construction which can be dissected to unearth its values and beliefs.

Major areas of research in whiteness studies include the nature of white privilege and white identity, 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.

Criticisms

Writer David Horowitz draws a distinction between whiteness studies and other analogous disciplines. "Black studies celebrates blackness, Chicano studies celebrates Chicanos, women's studies celebrates women, and white studies attacks white people as evil." or geographical location.

Barbara Kay, a columnist for the National Post, has sharply criticized whiteness studies, writing that it "points to a new low in moral vacuity and civilizational self-loathing" and is an example of "academic pusillanimity." According to Kay, whiteness studies "cuts to the chase: It is all, and only, about white self-hate."

Kay noted the leanings of the field by quoting Jeff Hitchcock, co-founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of White American Culture (CSWAC) who stated in a 1998 speech:

There is no crime that whiteness has not committed against people of colour.... We must blame whiteness for the continuing patterns today... which damage and prevent the humanity of those of us within it....We must blame whiteness for the continuing patterns today that deny the rights of those outside of whiteness and which damage and pervert the humanity of those of us within it.

Regarding whiteness studies (WS) more broadly, Kay wrote:

WS teaches that if you are white, you are branded, literally in the flesh, with evidence of a kind of original sin. You can try to mitigate your evilness, but you can't eradicate it. The goal of WS is to entrench permanent race consciousness in everyone — eternal victimhood for nonwhites, eternal guilt for whites — and was most famously framed by WS chief guru, Noel Ignatiev, former professor at Harvard University [sic, Ignatiev was a Ph.D. student and then a tutor at Harvard, but never a professor], now teaching at the Massachusetts College of Art: "The key to solving the social problems of our age is to abolish the white race — in other words, to abolish the privileges of the white skin."

In addition to such criticism in the mass media, whiteness studies has earned a mixed reception from academics in other fields. In 2001, historian Eric Arnesen wrote that "whiteness has become a blank screen onto which those who claim to analyze it can project their own meanings" and that the field "suffers from a number of potentially fatal methodological and conceptual flaws." First, Arnesen writes that the core theses of whiteness studies—that racial categories are arbitrary social constructs without definite biological basis, and that some white Americans benefit from racist discrimination of non-whites—have been common wisdom in academia for many decades and are hardly as novel or controversial as whiteness studies scholars seem to believe. Additionally, Arnesen accuses whiteness studies scholars of sloppy thinking; of making claims not supported by their sources; of overstating supporting evidence and cherry picking to neglect contrary information.

He notes that a particular datum almost entirely ignored by whiteness studies scholars is religion, which has played a prominent role in conflicts among various American classes. He says that a type of "keyword literalism" persists in whiteness studies, where important words and phrases from primary sources are taken out of their historical context. Whiteness has so many different definitions that the word is "nothing less than a moving target." Arnesen notes that whiteness studies scholars are entirely on the far left of the political spectrum, and suggests that their apparent vitriol towards white Americans is due in part to white workers not fulfilling the predictions of Marxist theory that the proletariat would overcome racial, national and class distinctions to unite and overthrow capitalism. He cites, as an example, David Roediger’s afterword to the seminal Wages of Whiteness, which asserts that the book was written as a reaction to "the appalling extent to which white male workers voted for Reaganism in the 1980s." Arnesen argues that in the absence of supporting evidence, whiteness studies often rely on amateurish Freudian speculation about the motives of white people: "The psychoanalysis of whiteness here differs from the 'talking cure' of Freudianism partly in its neglect of the speech of those under study." Without more accurate scholarship, Arnesen writes that "it is time to retire whiteness for more precise historical categories and analytical tools."

In 2002 historian Peter Kolchin offered a more positive assessment and declared that, at its best, whiteness studies has "unfulfilled potential" and offers a novel and valuable means of studying history. Particularly, he praises scholarship into the development of the concept of whiteness in the United States, and notes that the definition and implications of a white racial identity have shifted over the decades. Yet Kolchin describes a "persistent sense of unease " with certain aspects of whiteness studies. There is no consensus definition of whiteness, and thus the word is used in vague and contradictory ways, with some scholars even leaving the term undefined in their articles or essays." Kolchin also objects to "a persistent dualism evident in the work of the best whiteness studies authors," who often claim that whiteness is a social construct while also arguing, paradoxically, that whiteness is an "omnipresent and unchanging" reality existing independent of socialization. Kolchin agrees that entering a post-racial paradigm might be beneficial for humanity, but he challenges the didactic tone of whiteness studies scholars who single out a white racial identification as negative, while praising a black or Asian self-identification. Scholars in whiteness studies sometimes seriously undermine their arguments by interpreting historical evidence independent of its broader context (e.g., Karen Brodkin’s examination of American anti-semitism largely neglects its roots in European anti-semitism). Finally, Kolchin categorically rejects the argument—common amongst many whiteness scholars—that racism and whiteness are intrinsically and uniquely American, and he expresses concern at the "belief in the moral emptiness of whiteness [...] there is a thin line between saying that whiteness is evil and saying that whites are evil."

Theodore W. Allen, pioneering writer on "white skin privilege" and "white privilege" from the 1960s until his death in 2005, offered a critical review "On Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness" (Revised Edition)]. He personally put "whiteness" in quotes because he shied away from using the term. As Allen explained,

"it’s an abstract noun, it’s an abstraction, it’s an attribute of some people, it’s not the role they play. And the white race is an actual objective thing. It’s not anthropologic, it’s a historically developed identity of European Americans and Anglo-Americans and so it has to be dealt with. It functions... in this history of ours and it has to be recognized as such. . . .to slough it off under the heading of ‘whiteness,’ to me seems to get away from the basic white race identity trauma."


See also




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Whiteness studies" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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