- What Was (the White) Race? Memory, Categories, Change
...it’s impossible to me to separate black studies from white studies.—C.L.R. James
When Timothy McVeigh’s photo appeared on the cover of Time, it was emblazoned with a caption that read “the face of terror.” Not a year later came the arrest of “Team Viper.” You may recall, the Vipers were that otherwise unremarkable group of suburbanites from West Shangri-La Lane, Arizona, who were caught with a half-ton of the same ammonium-nitrate compound that exploded in Oklahoma City, this time tucked away in the garage next to the gardening tools and other middle-class accouterments. Both events were reported to have “shocked” the nation, but why?
These events, I would suggest, exhibit a fundamental Western, white, and modern anxiety, one that emerges somewhere between the putative normativity of the everyday and the eventual awareness of an other that is us. Not to slight the brutal tragedy of 168 dead, but glossy magazines and the evening news know that when blue-eyed, blond-haired, white men and outwardly peaceable suburbanites are cast as anti-government guerrilla warriors, it makes for a hot-button scoop—flashier, say, than repeating those hopelessly redundant statistics about government-sanctioned corporate greed and the new economic world order. Home-grown anti-federalism is a good story because distinctions and oppositions emerge where before were just stock commonalities. Here, you might say, Benjaminian “estrangement” meets the rank pastiche of Hard Copy or A Current Affair. A clean-cut, Caucasian “John Doe” in a moving van, or a middle-class home replete with ornamental cactuses and well-groomed lawns, are at some historical flash point transformed to disclose the barbarism just under the veneer of ordinary life.
Indeed, to ferret out the ontological absenteeism implicit in the concept of the “ordinary” is at least one objective made available lately by the (also widely reported) “rise of White Studies,” a.k.a., critical ethnography’s next-big-thing.1 It was until recently assumed that white identity was all-but-featureless, a-categorical background, some unspeakable neutrality by which the default mechanism for otherness was automatically set. But, at least in theory, distinction has crossed the ontological tracks, and whiteness is no longer what James Baldwin calls the “jewel of naïveté.”2 No longer, that is, does whiteness in its omnipotence and absence afford white folk absolution on matters of race. Whiteness is instead a function of material inequity, even if it is also a fragile historical fiction.
But “White Studies,” so far anyway, has hardly resulted in the political dispersion of whiteness on behalf of exclusively post-white agendas. Indeed, the simple declarative act of tagging whiteness with a temporal marker seems to have lead, with our barely noticing, to an inescapable performative irony, a sort of visibility blues wherein whiteness is (still), as Richard Dyer puts it, both there and not there.3 My question is: if whiteness is being variously examined in its normative capacity, is it (still) master of itself? The critical study of whiteness initiates a series of similarly awkward questions which bear as much relevance to the sly ontological struggles of (white) majoritarian culture over formerly colonized and enslaved peoples (of color) as they do the discovery of what Theodore Allen calls in another context that “truly peculiar institution.”4 Allen is referring here to the peculiarity of the category of whiteness itself to afford material privilege. But the critical rush to the study of whiteness is arguably no less peculiar. “White Studies” is peculiar at the very least insofar as this work, unlike Black, Hispanic, or Asian Studies, is eager to pursue the necessary disintegration of its object. The nettlesome epistemological questions inherent in this task, not to mention how (or whether) such a thing counts as politics, have yet to be seriously discussed.
So I want to begin to do that here; but before plunging ahead, it is hard to resist mentioning one other recent media affair...