2 White Racial Formation: Into the Twenty-First Century
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2 White Racial Formation: Into the Twenty-First Century CHARLES A. GALLAGHER [The author, a sociologist, interviewed white and non-white students at "Urban University." The following passage, excerpted from the concluding chapter of an upcoming book, summarizes his research findings. Ed.] Whiteness is in a state of change. One only need browse book stands or news racks for examples of how the idea of whiteness is being interpreted, defined, reinterpreted , and contested by popular writers and journalists. Whites perceive themselves, according to one account, as being part of a distinctly different, colorblind, sympathetic generation that has learned to look beyond "the color of the skin" to "the beauty within."1 Whereas some whites see a common humanity with their nonwhite counterparts, others see whiteness as a liability. A white sergeant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's office announced creation of the Association of White Male Peace Officers, with the goal of defending the rights of white officers who are"distinctly averse to the proposal that, as a class, we be punished or penalized for any real or purported transgressions of our forbears ."2 This "class" of white men seeks the same types of legal protection afforded to other groups organized around their race or gender. Samuel Francis, an editorial writer for the Washington Times and advisor to Patrick Buchanan's presidential campaign, declared that "whites must reassert our identity and our solidarity ... in explicitly racial terms through the articulation of racial consciousness as whites."3 Francis believes whites have ignored or disregarded their racial identity and must (re)unite as whites to stop the influx of nonwhite immigrants. It is no wonder many whites feel confused and overwhelmed about who they are racially and how they fit into American race relations. The meaning of whiteness is not to be found in any single one of the preceding descriptions of how whites imagine themselves or come to understand their racial identity. The contemporary meaning is an amalgamation of these white narratives. Whites can be defined as naive because they attach little meaning to their race, humane in their desire to reach out to nonwhites, defensive as self-defined victims, and reactionary in their calls for a return to white solidarity. It is not surprising, then, that my respondents would generate similar disparate (and at times schizophrenic) renderings when asked what meaning they attach to their race. As in the anecdotes above, the extent to which whiteness was a salient form of identity for my Copyright © 1996 by Charles A. Gallagher. Reprinted by permission. Copyrighted Material White Racial Formation 7 respondents varied greatly, ranging from the naive, to the reactionary, to the situational. Some described their sense of whiteness as being partially veiled, becoming visible and salient only when they felt they were a racial minority. This momentary minority status and the anxiety often associated with this experience colored how respondents saw themselves and their relationship to other racial groups. For other respondents, whiteness had been made explicitly visible at some earlier point in their lives. Their understanding of the concept was often no more than a list of what they were not, why they should not feel guilty about being white, or why their race was now being held against them. The extent to which a sense of whiteness was just emerging for some and had already evolved as an overt identity for others obscures an obvious and important finding: If whiteness was ever invisible for these respondents, it no longer is. What, however, have we learned about the social, political, and cultural construction of whiteness? How is the construction of whiteness linked sociologically to the structural elements that shape those meanings? Respondents may "know they are white," but what does that mean and what are its political and social consequences? A number of patterns emerged in my data, each of which delineates a particular facet of how white racial identity is constructed and made salient. These patterns point to one clear and significant finding : Whiteness is in the midst of fundamental transformation. White identity is not only a reaction to the entrance of historically marginalized racial and ethnic groups into the political arena and the ensuing struggle over social resources. The construction of whiteness is based, at least among the respondents in my study, on a perception of current and future material deprivation and the need to delineate white culture in a nondemonized fashion . The majority of whites in this study have come to understand themselves and their...