- The Tide of Second-Wave Whiteness
All Black people in the U.S., irrespective of their class status or politics, live with the possibility that they will be terrorized by whiteness.—bell hooks
Sitting next to my computer is a copy of Indiana University’s campus newspaper. The headline: “Teacher combats harassment.” A female African-American professor of history, it seems, has been traumatized by an obscene phone call to her office and an unsigned racist letter delivered to her campus mailbox. She suspects that they both originated from a group of White males in her introductory level class that she’s had to discipline several times throughout the semester. As I read it, I thought “that could just as easily be me, or any other African American instructor,” especially in light of several other race-related campus incidents. The lines from bell hooks came to mind, and are, perhaps, very appropriate—with some qualification—for a review essay on five “second-wave” explorations into contemporary constructions and meanings of whiteness: the anthologies Whiteness, Displacing Whiteness, and White Trash; and single-subject White Lies and White.
In the introduction to Whiteness, Mike Hill creates an interesting delineation of the first and second waves of whiteness studies. The “first-wave” focused on making whiteness visible, marking it as a social construction that is impermanent and situated. In other words, these studies demonstrated that whiteness matters, that Whites have privileges due solely to their racial categorization. “Second-wave” writings move on to examine how whiteness operates in conjunction [End Page 232] with other social categories, issues, and powers: what are the ways it matters, and what are the consequences of particular articulations? Hill adds that the second-wave must not be surfed in such a way that re-centers whiteness in “an attempt to ‘lactify’ ethnic differences and stay relevant in these lean, mean times of liquid cultural capital” (12). Whiteness must be critically interrogated in order to create strategies for reducing its power to terrorize its Others (and Whites too, according to some). A “good” second-wave book, perhaps, should help an Other like me mitigate the effects of whiteness, in multiple contexts. As we shall see, however, each book generates disparate meanings of “Other” and strategies for addressing the power of whiteness to terrorize these Others . . . and Whites.
Whiteness fits snugly into hooks’ mold. Of twenty-one chapters, the American Black/White dichotomy of race is privileged in all but Amitava Kumar’s “Conditions of Immigration” (Asians and Latino/as have center stage) and Grant Farred’s “Bulletproof Settlers” (which examines post-apartheid South Africa). This is not necessarily a “problem,” however, as the Black/White axis of race is central to the construction of whiteness, and should be rigorously investigated (especially in conjunction with gender and class, as in many of the essays in bell hooks’ Killing Rage ). No, the problem (for some) is that the volume is top-heavy with readings of specific cultural texts, such as transcripts of the Hill-Thomas affair, excerpts from film noir cinema, “hard” country and Doo-Wop music lyrics, samples of post-bellum U.S. fiction, and summaries of performance art. In order to fully confront whiteness’ terrorizing power, we also need more lived accounts to complement the (worthwhile) theoretical musings. The last chapter of the book—the manifesto of John Garvey and Noel Ignatiev’s “Race Traitor” magazine (see also their edited Routledge volume Race Traitor )—begins to point us in the next direction of our second-wave whiteness investigation.
Enter Displacing Whiteness, from which the hooks epigraph is taken. While Displacing Whiteness also includes readings of texts (canonical U.S. literature juxtaposed with contemporary experimental fiction, and the film “Gandhi”), it...