Whiteness Studies and the Paradox of Particularity
Let me begin with the story of two museums. In Laurens, South Carolina, John Howard has built one in the old Echo Theater, which is located just a stone’s throw, as they say, from the county courthouse in the center of town. The marquee blares, “The World’s Only Klan Museum.” Inside, there are robes, books, Confederate flags, pocket knives, “White Power” sweatshirts, even T-shirts declaring “It’s a White Thing. You Wouldn’t Understand.” When the local authorities denied Howard a business license to sell souvenirs in the Redneck Shop, he threatened to take his case to court. Suzanne Coe, lawyer for Shannon Faulkner of the Citadel controversy, became his legal counsel; like that earlier case, she said this one, too, was about civil rights.1 [End Page 115]
In Alabama, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is located across from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the site of multiple bombings in the 1960s, including the now famous one that killed four black girls. Inside the museum are replicas and remnants from the period of official segregation: public bathrooms marked “white” and “colored,” pieces of a yellow school bus, a segregated street scene. In the gift shop, patrons can purchase African American history books, posters, postcards, T-shirts emblazoned with the image of Martin Luther King Jr.
For Howard, as for his civil rights lawyer, the existence of the Alabama museum—and the legal protections that enabled it and other such projects to come into being—establishes the legitimacy of, if not the legal precedent for, the Klan Museum, guaranteeing Howard’s right, in his terms, to display pride in being white.2 So many of the characteristics of U.S. racial discourse in the 1990s are exhibited in Howard’s story. Most notably, the language of civil rights is mobilized to protect whiteness, which is cast not only as a minority identity but as one injured by the denial of public representation.3 In asking the apparatus of the nation to adjudicate this “minority” injury, [End Page 116] Howard seeks the universal and hence abstractly disembodied ledger of rights that are understood as part of the promise of democratic citizenship.4
Since the case has been settled out of court in Howard’s favor, can he still preserve his injury? This might seem like an odd question, but I ask it in order to advance three interrelated claims about whiteness. The first claim is historical: that the distinctiveness of southern white supremacist identity since the Civil War hinges on a repeated appeal to the minoritized, injured “nature” of whiteness.5 To be injured—by the economic transformations of Emancipation, by the perceived loss of all-white social spaces, by the reformation of a national imaginary of white citizen-subjects—provides the basis of white supremacist collective self-fashioning, which has functioned, and continues to function, by producing the threat of its own extinction as the justification and motivation for violent retaliations.6
The second claim, drawing on the first, is theoretical: To the extent that critical race theorists have assumed that the power of whiteness arises from its appropriation of the universal and that the universal is opposed to and hence devoid of the particular, we have failed to interpret the tension between particularity and universality that characterizes not simply the legal discourse of race (where early documents enfranchise the “white person”) but also the changing contours of white power and privilege in the last three centuries. Richard Dyer, for instance, has argued that making whiteness visible works “to dislodge them/us from the position of power,” and it is now this assumption that governs much of the interrogation of whiteness in academic discourse.7 In assigning the power of white racial supremacy to its invisibility and hence universality, Dyer and others underplay [End Page 117] the contradictory formation of white racial power that has enabled its historical elasticity and contemporary transformations.8 Apartheid structures, both slavery and Jim Crow segregation, indeed universalized whiteness through the entitlements of the citizen-subject, but they simultaneously mobilized a vast social geometry of white particularity, as the declarative warning “For Whites Only” ominously suggested.9 While for Howard the postsegregation era has put such supremacist white particularity to the test, new and quite powerful strategies of particularization have emerged, with the arsenal of anti-affirmative-action legislation since University of California v. Bakke (1978) taking the lead. To begin to discuss the ways in which white power has reconstructed, and continues to reconstruct, itself in the context of the demise of segregation leads to my third and final claim. But first, I need to explain more about Howard’s story.
In Laurens, a multiracial town of about ten thousand, Howard is not a popular man. People, both blacks and whites, want him, the museum, [End Page 118] and the Redneck Shop out. This is a town with a violent history. “For decades,” Rick Bragg writes, “a piece of rotted rope dangled from a railroad trestle, just outside this little town, a reminder of the last lynching in Laurens County. It was back in 1913, but people still talk of the black man wrongly accused of rape, and the white mob that hanged him.” The lynch rope was not removed until 1986, when the trestle was destroyed, which means that little more than a decade has gone by without the public display of violent white supremacy. It also means that no one was compelled, in the course of seventy-three years, to take that rope down. Rumor had it that it was a crime to remove it, and African Americans have been quoted as saying that they well understood the rope’s threatening “stay-in-your-place” message.
While no whites were moved to undo the master sign of their privilege over the years, its resurrection in the downtown Klan Museum has been met with an outpouring of white alarm. Why one response and not the other? One answer has to do with the politics of social space: The museum is located in the center of town, in the most public of public spaces, while the lynch rope hung outside of town, along the road to and from Laurens’s historically black section. The lynch rope thus signified the panoptic power of whiteness—always present but never fully visible; it racialized and embodied blackness through its memorialization of terroristic death. The Klan Museum, on the other hand, embodies whiteness in an open public display, marking its presence and visibility, and thereby fixing it in an implicit narrative of both local and national violence. To protest the museum means, for whites, protesting the particularizing pact between segregationist ideologies and white embodied identity. It also means participating in—indeed, actively forging—a counterwhiteness whose primary characteristic is its disaffiliation from white supremacist practices.
It is this disaffiliation that might be thought of as the pedagogical lesson for whites of civil rights reform, in which the transformation from segregation to integration reconstructed not only the materiality of black life in the United States but also the national imaginary of race and race discourse within which white identity since the 1960s has emerged. Integration, no matter how failed in its utopian projections of a nation beyond race division, nonetheless powerfully suspended the acceptability of the public display of white supremacy, so much so that the hegemonic formation of white identity today must be understood as taking shape in the rhetorical, if not always political, register of disaffiliation from white supremacist practices and discourses. This does not mean that racism and white supremacy have been dissolved or that their consequences today are less [End Page 119] damaging, exclusive, or exploitative than they were under official national segregation, but it is to remark on the success of black liberation struggle to de-territorialize the public imaginary and social geography of segregation through critiques of degrading language, segregated social services, and mass-circulated stereotypical images. Such success has not been total, nor has it remained exterior to the reproduction of white power in the last three decades. Indeed, by the late 1990s, segregationist practices and their Klanesque defenses now serve as the referential framework for understandings of white supremacy in general, which means that many white Americans can now join efforts to undo civil rights reform without recognizing their activities or opinions as participation in the contemporary reconfiguration of white power and privilege.10
This split in the white subject—between disaffiliation from white supremacist practices and disavowal of the ongoing reformation of white power and one’s benefit from it—is constitutive of contemporary white racial formation, underlying what Howard Winant calls “white racial dualism.” What interests me most about this dualism is how it lends itself to a wide range of political positions and agendas. In “Behind Blue Eyes,” Winant describes the postwar era as one in which “the problematic of whiteness . . . has emerged as the principal source of anxiety and conflict,” with such anxiety being played out today in five “racial projects”: the far Right, new Right, neoconservative, neoliberal, and new abolitionist.11 According to Winant, only the far Right deploys a biologist explanation of race that overtly identifies with supremacist practices and discourses. All other projects, no matter how fundamentally neoracist or antiracist, frame themselves within the official national discourse of integrationist equality. While one might want to argue with Winant’s descriptive schema of the contemporary political terrain, his observation that white supremacist discourses in the familiar style [End Page 120] of pre–civil rights struggle have been de-centered from the national lexicon is crucial. It allows us to understand the ways in which disaffiliation from white supremacy founds contemporary white identity formation for the majority of Americans and, further, how that disaffiliation can be—and has been—put to multiple and contradictory political purposes.
In the U.S. popular public sphere, for instance, which is to say in the commodified circuits of contemporary identity production, white disaffiliation takes shape as “liberal whiteness,” a color-blind moral sameness whose reinvestment in “America” rehabilitates the national narrative of democratic progress in the aftermath of social dissent and crisis. Such liberal whiteness currently dominates the popular imaginary in narratives that feature whites as the soldiers of civil rights (such as the films Mississippi Burning and A Time to Kill, or the TV production of Fences), in spectacular fantasies of a postracist U.S.-based new world order (Independence Day), in sentimental renderings of cross-racial relations (Boys on the Side), and in filmic celebrations of fundamental white male goodness (Forrest Gump). Simultaneously evoking a postracist society and a newly innocent whiteness, representations of liberal whiteness put a seemingly benign touch on those material transformations that have accompanied this century’s long and complicated transition from Jim Crow to official integration to the new multiculturalism. Indeed, we might say that even as liberal whiteness has overseen the rise of “diversity” in the popular public sphere, the nation-state’s capitulation to capitalism—in the deaths of welfare and affirmative action, on the one hand, and the heightened regulation of immigrant populations and borders, on the other—has extended the material scope of white privilege. While the histories of these issues are complicated, it is nonetheless significant how seemingly “benign” is the popular cultural rhetoric of whiteness today and how self-empowering are its consequences. Or, to put this another way, seldom has whiteness been so widely represented as attuned to racial equality and justice while so aggressively solidifying its advantage.
My third claim, then, is simultaneously a descriptive and a prescriptive one: that much of the force of contemporary white racial power arises from the hegemony of liberal whiteness, whose dominance in the popular imaginary must be examined as both provocation and context for the emergence of the academy’s latest and—in nearly everyone’s opinion—rather confounding antiracist venture, whiteness studies. Journals (the Minnesota Review and Transition) have devoted special issues to the topic, conferences on whiteness have received national network coverage, and both [End Page 121] faculty and graduate students have begun to list “whiteness studies” as an area of research and teaching expertise. Often defined as a self-styled response to various demands for whites to quit studying “the other” and study themselves, whiteness studies as a phrase is typically deployed to reference a very recent scholarly archive, with the texts of Theodore Allen, Jessie Daniels, Michelle Fine, Ruth Frankenberg, Mike Hill, Noel Ignatiev, Ian F. Haney Lopez, Eric Lott, Fred Pfeil, David R. Roediger, Alexander Saxton, Mab Segrest, Vron Ware, and Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz as central.12 Among these texts, three trajectories of inquiry might be said to form the critical project of whiteness studies, all of which take social constructionist renderings of race as their theoretical assumption: the race traitor school (which advocates the abolition of whiteness through white disaffiliation from race privilege), the “white trash” school (which analyzes the [End Page 122] “racialization” of the permanent poor in order to demonstrate the otherness of whiteness within), and the class solidarity school (which rethinks the history of working-class struggle as the preamble to forging new cross-racial alliances).
Key to all three trajectories is Roediger’s groundbreaking 1991 study of the creation of the white working class in the nineteenth century, The Wages of Whiteness, which rehearses the history of the “whitening” of Irish immigrants as a kind of paradigmatic case for understanding whiteness as a social construction. For the Irish immigrant, whiteness was a compensatory “wage” that worked to disrupt black Irish or Chinese Irish identifications in the context of industrial exploitation, thereby pitting race against class identifications in ways that have haunted working-class struggles for two centuries. While Roediger’s project is quite specifically a rearticulation of class struggle as an antiracist project, his historical account of white racial formation has come to define the political horizon of whiteness studies by imagining for contemporary white people a political (as opposed to biological or cultural) identity beyond the conflation of power and privilege with white skin. The social constructionist project of whiteness studies, we might therefore say, takes shape in a gesture of historical retrieval of not-yet-white ethnics, whose experience in the new world can be characterized as one not of “being” but of “becoming” white. In this gesture, which I would call the foundational gesture of whiteness studies, the texts heralded in the academic press as a “new humanities subfield” coalesce as a kind of ethnic studies formulation, but one profoundly divided by the need to destroy its object of study—whiteness—as well.
Whiteness studies thus evinces its own version of the contradictions inscribed in Winant’s concept of racial dualism. On the one hand, it responds to the contemporary leftist desire to produce an antiracist white (or postwhite) subject, one whose political commitments can be disaffiliated from the deployments of white supremacy and refunctioned as cross-race and cross-class struggle. In doing so, it encounters, on the other hand, the critical difficulty of that antiracist subject whose self-conscious and willful self-production can only reconfirm a universalist narcissistic white logic, mobilized now through the guise of an originary discursive blackness that simultaneously particularizes and dis-identifies with the political power of white skin. These moves, colliding with and contesting the reformulation of whiteness in the public sphere, demonstrate what George Lipsitz calls “the impossibility of the anti-racist white subject,” thereby necessitating not an oppositional analysis between academic antiracist projects and the popular [End Page 123] public sphere, but one that seeks to link their mutual, if contradictory, critical limits.13
This essay addresses itself to such a task by turning first to the film that one month before the Oklahoma City bombing garnered an Academy Award for best picture of 1994. In Forrest Gump, the symptomatic anxieties of contemporary white racial dualism are set into play, with the narrative performing a series of strategic reinventions of a postsegregationist antiracist whiteness as part of a broader claim to rejuvenate “America” for a transnational capitalist order. While the film’s overall trajectory is of the most reactionary political kind, it fulfills the cultural desire to forget what we don’t know how to remember by remembering in haphazard and incoherent ways the images of racial trauma and social dissent that we can’t yet forget—the physical violence that attended desegregation, the street protests of the ’60s, the bloodbath of the Vietnam War, the murder of national political leaders. Through its use of television images and in the passive construction of our model spectator—Forrest Gump, who neither can nor wants to “know”—the film participates in the contemporary struggle to reform whiteness by moving its protagonist through a range of antiracist positions. Early in the film, Gump is rendered “discursively black” through the analogy between disability (mental and physical) and black social disenfranchisement; later, he becomes a race traitor by innocently participating in desegregation and in interracial male friendship; still later, his antiracist whiteness is forged by the repayment of a compensatory debt to a black family and the black community. In these and other ways, Forrest Gump takes aim at the segregationist imaginary of white identity formation, demonstrating less a political affinity with the emerging project of whiteness studies than a series of tense and contradictory convergences. From these convergences, we can explore what the emergent theoretical structure of whiteness studies seems unconsciously intent on constructing, namely, a history of racial origin—and a contemporary social analytic—tied to minoritarian positionings (the racialized ethnic, the permanent white poor). By reading the film as a precursor to further discussion of whiteness studies, this essay explores the emerging disciplinary apparatus that might be said to produce and define the study of whiteness as an academic field. Call it, if you will, an analysis of the compulsion to form the disciplinary endeavor “whiteness studies” in the first place. [End Page 124]
Back to the Future
At the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, visitors begin their tour by taking a seat on one of the narrow white benches that fills a rather small, darkened room behind the admissions booth. As the lights fade, an entire wall comes to life with documentary footage narrating the history of the state and its long and bloody battle to desegregate. A city founded during Reconstruction, Birmingham played a key role in the civil rights struggle by organizing one of the most successful uses of consumer power to grieve forms of inequality sanctioned by the state in U.S. history.14 The Birmingham bus boycott drew widespread media attention as African American residents turned to other means, most notably walking, to navigate their city. The Civil Rights Institute thematizes this mass resistance by installing its visitor in a space organized around issues and images of mobility. When the documentary ends, the movie screen wall rises dramatically to reveal the space of the museum on the other side. Every visitor to the museum must walk through this screen, so to speak, into rooms and corridors that contain artifacts of the material culture of segregation and the fight to undo it. At nearly every turn, there are more screens—a mock 1960s storefront, where boxy televisions broadcast images of encounters between Freedom Fighters and the police; a video wall, where multiple contemporary televisions juxtapose racist commercials, political interviews, and the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. In a grand gesture where history and the present meet, the visitor is positioned in front of a picture window that looks out onto the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church across the street.
Forrest Gump, one might remember, is set at a bus stop, and one of its main technological innovations is its clever insertion of the protagonist into nationally recognizable television scenes.15 In the most famous [End Page 125] instance, Gump becomes a participant in George Wallace’s failed attempt to block blacks from entering the University of Alabama following the court order to desegregate. Positioned initially as a member of the crowd, Gump symbolically joins the students when he retrieves one of their dropped books; in his movement from witness to role player, Gump is strategically disaffiliated from the racist whiteness that Wallace so viciously stands for, but the violence and anger of that historical moment are flattened by the innocence of Gump’s unknowing gesture. In the spatializing logic of segregation, Gump is, in this instance, a race traitor. He crosses the lines of racial demarcation, disengaging from a white racist social body to join the black students, but the innocence of his action crucially depoliticizes the whole scene. It is this kind of “race trait-ing” that most characterizes the film, as Gump’s movement in personal moral terms not only displaces the necessity of conscious identifications as precursors to collective political action but also consigns the entire realm of the “historical” to television, which installs a consumptive spectator as the ultimate witness—and postracist subject—of political change itself.
In its extraction of Gump from the legacy of southern segregationist identity, the film, we might say, de-essentializes the relationship among white skin, white privilege, and white racism, answering (or so it seems) the clarion call of contemporary theory to render race a social construction. But Forrest Gump can imagine a nonessentialist whiteness only by shifting the signification of segregation from an emblem of black oppression and white material privilege to a form of white injury. This shift enables segregation to serve not only as the historical form of white particularity that must be disavowed but also as the means for crafting a liberal whiteness that is now, rhetorically speaking, akin to blackness. The film’s preoccupation with the resignification of segregation is apparent at the outset; the narrative tellingly offers a black woman to serve as the bus stop audience for the childhood portion of Gump’s tale.16 Without recognizing the meaning of his interlocutor’s [End Page 126] only words—“My feet hurt”—Gump remembers his first pair of shoes, or, I should say, he remembers, through his desire for the woman’s shoes, his own personal history of mobility as a series of restrictions. The first restriction was physical, as Forrest was forced to wear leg braces to correct his curvature of the spine; the second was social, as Forrest endured ridicule and exclusion because of his physical and mental disabilities. If the analogy between segregationist racialization and Forrest’s restricted mobility, ostracism, and physical “difference” isn’t clear, the narrative locates the scene of Forrest’s social exclusion on a school bus, where his classmates eagerly refuse him a seat. (Later in the film, he will again be refused a seat on a bus by his fellow inductees in the army.) These scenes perform two functions: They rewrite segregation as a discourse of injury no longer specific to black bodies, which installs whiteness as injury; and they define that injury as private, motivated not by a social system but by the prejudices and moral lacks of individuals who seem simply not to know better. That Forrest can “know better” without ever knowing is, of course, the deep irony of this film; from this antiepistemological position, he gets to utter the sentimental punch line: “I may not be a smart man, but I know how to love.”
If Forrest Gump is a liberal white rendition of the history of segregationist apartheid, if the film can be said to be a walk through the archive of popular national memory, its project does not end with white occupation of injury. That would be a version of John Howard’s story. Forrest Gump has a more pedagogical mission: to demonstrate that difference and injury, even intellectual deficiency, are not impediments to the American way of life. The plot thus advances through scenes in which Forrest gains mobility, thereby exchanging injury for liberation and transcendence. As a kid being chased by his classmates, he magically breaks free of his leg braces; as a teenager being harassed by boys in a truck with a Confederate flag license plate, his flight across a college football field results in a scholarship and an All-American athletic career; in Vietnam, his ability to run saves his life and the lives of others; and in the film’s oddest and longest segment devoted to mobility, Gump spends three years running from shore to shore, redrawing the boundaries of the nation’s geographic identity and demonstrating that no region (no state, no neighborhood, no city street) is off-limits or out of reach. All this mobility critically recasts the segregationist history of the bus stop, even though that, too, must be left behind. In the final segments of the film, [End Page 127] Forrest discovers that he doesn’t need the bus to get where he is going, as he is only blocks away from his destination, where marriage, the domestic scenario, and, miraculously, a completed paternity (“Little Forrest”) await. He can easily walk there.
In his exodus from the bus stop and its symbolic evocation of national struggle and racial strife, Gump is extricated from the public domain of the political in favor of an insulated private and domestic realm. Such a movement inscribes the cultural logic of what Lauren Berlant calls today’s “intimate public sphere,” where the family “usurps the modernist promise of the culturally vital, multiethnic city . . . [and] public life . . . [becomes] ridiculous and even dangerous to the nation.” That the family is imagined and indeed popularly imaged as white underscores the conservative racial agenda of this new public intimacy. In the case of Forrest Gump, it gives to the protagonist’s incessant movement a final resting place: In the last scene, outside his ancestral home on an Alabama country road, the white father will board his now motherless but perfectly intelligent son on a school bus, on which, the film promises, little Forrest will never be denied a seat. This resolution, in which a sentimentalized white paternity ensures the survival of the nation-as-family, is predicated on Gump’s celebrated failure to cognitively or narratively register the events he witnesses—predicated, that is, on Gump’s native inability to forge anything but the most narcissistic and personalized of identifications, first with the mother who bore him and later with the child who doubles him. The film’s commitment to a protagonist unable to read the historical archive he is moving through demonstrates the prevailing assumption of the Reagan years, during which, as Berlant puts it, “[the normal American] sees her/his identity as something sustained in private, personal, intimate relations; in contrast, only the abjected, degraded lower citizens of the United States will see themselves as sustained by public, coalitional, non-kin affiliations.”17
The shift to the private and familial carries a certain risk, however, for a film whose protagonist is a southerner, an Alabaman, and the named descendant of the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest. Under these conditions, too much familial intimacy risks sustaining a white identity that the film is sentimentally invested in undoing—the identity, that is, of the overtly racist American: the white southerner.18 As I have already [End Page 128] suggested, liberal whiteness is characterized by its disaffiliation from segregationist forms of white identity and identification. For this reason, the first flashback narrative of the film, told to the black female witness, features Gump’s Confederate hero ancestor, a man who was born into poverty but grew rich as a slave trader and planter. This ancestor garnered both fame and shame during the Civil War as a brilliant, unconventional battle tactician who incited his men to massacre surrendering black troops at Fort Pillow. But the film’s Nathan Bedford Forrest is ludicrous, not powerful; in Gump’s mind, he would “dress up in . . . robes and . . . bed sheets and act like . . . ghosts or spooks or something.” Gump’s mother chose the name to remind her son that “sometimes people do things that just don’t make no sense.” The film’s parable of naming displaces the intimate family relations that attach Gump to a genealogy of masculine aggression and segregationist white supremacy, and, in doing so, it importantly diffuses any feminist reading of the violence of patriarchal forms of inheritance.19 As if to emphasize this point, the patronymic, Forrest, is shifted to Gump’s first name, and the repetition of the line “My name is Forrest, Forrest Gump” continually reminds us of this foundational displacement. In the liberal white fantasy of Forrest Gump, the descendant of the founder of the Klan can emerge at the end of the twentieth century shorn of his damaged patriarchal inheritance, which is to say that the intimacy of familial, personal relations has now been successfully separated from the past and tied instead to a prototypical American future. In the process, white power and privilege are displaced from any inherent relation—historically, ideologically, politically—to white skin.20
The liberal whiteness formed from these narrative displacements [End Page 129] offers a subtle but telling commentary on one of the most volatile issues of the 1990s: affirmative action. In “Whiteness as Property,” Cheryl Harris distinguishes between corrective justice, which seeks “compensation for discrete and ‘finished’ harm done to minority group members or their ancestors,” and distributive justice, which “is the claim an individual or group has to the positions or advantages or benefits they would have been awarded under fair conditions.”21 According to Harris, the goals of affirmative action—to address the harms done to those people minoritized by racial (or gendered) oppression—are undermined when corrective justice is the interpretative frame because not only is the harm assumed to be finished but the practices through which harm has been done are individualized, confined to the one who perpetrated it and the one who endured it. In this context, whites can claim to be innocent and therefore in need of counterlegislative protection because they have not individually perpetuated harm. This is the logic of Bakke, as well as California’s recent Proposition 209, and it is the model of compensation being worked out in Forrest Gump. Gump’s mother, one might recall, supports her family by running a boarding house out of the old plantation that is the ancestral home in Greenbough, Alabama, a narrative convenience that renders the family’s historical connection to the economics of slavery if not deficient at least not materially advantageous. Whatever harm slavery inflicted is finished, and the privileges of economic gain that garner for white identity a material advantage have been narratively swept away. This does not mean that Gump will have no racial debt to pay, but rather that his debt is, first, not historical, not about the ongoing economic privilege of whiteness as a material effect of slavery and segregation, and, second, not collective, not about a social identity enhanced and protected by the law as an economic investment.
What, then, is Gump’s debt? And why must there be a debt at all in a film so clearly devoted to the fantasy of humanist transcendence? To answer these questions, we need to consider Gump’s accumulation of wealth and to return, in time, to the issues of shoes, specifically the red and white Nike running shoes that serve as visual cues of the diegetic present time of the film. Gump’s accumulation of wealth has two primary forms: shrimp and computers. The shrimping business is born of an interracial male confederation with Bubba, who gives Forrest a seat in the film’s second school bus scene and who also gives Gump all his knowledge about the shrimping business. When Bubba dies in the Vietnam War, Gump returns to the South [End Page 130] and shrimps, only to make it big when a hurricane conveniently destroys every other boat in the black-owned industry. Gump’s knowledge is quite literally African American knowledge, but the conversion of that “labor,” if you will, into accumulation is effected through nature, not society. Any debt to be paid is thus a personal one arising from Gump’s friendship with Bubba and not from the material advantages accorded to whiteness as an economic privilege. In this parable of the economics of contemporary black-white relations, the debt to be paid by Gump to Bubba’s family—half the profits of the shrimp business—is defined not by hierarchy or history but as an honor to intimate male friendship.
What is significant about Forrest Gump, of course, is its inability to imagine the black male as surviving the trauma of the racial history that Gump will supersede.22 This is especially striking since the other form of debt that the film imagines for Gump is also born of a male friendship and features Gump playing a role of compensation that has likewise been detached (in the film) from the responsibilities of the state: In his relationship with Lieutenant Dan, whose patriotic family has lost a son in every war since the Revolution, Gump both rescues and redeems the multiply injured white Vietnam veteran. Not surprisingly, this redemption is thematized through mobility as Lieutenant Dan, initially disabled by the loss of his legs in the war, comes finally to walk again (albeit with artificial limbs) in his last appearance [End Page 131] in the film. Set at Gump’s wedding to his childhood love Jenny, the symbolic reconstruction of Lieutenant Dan’s traumatized white male body is accompanied by his own heterosexual completion, as he announces his impending marriage to Susan, an Asian American woman. Where Jenny has functioned as the traumatized female body who is rescued by Gump but not saved because she is contaminated sexuality, Gump’s ability to save Lieutenant Dan is figured as a restoration of masculinity via the agency of interracial heterosexuality.
But there is more to Susan’s appearance than the predictable circulation of woman as emblem of a rejuvenated masculinity. Susan is the only person of Asian descent in this film that devotes significant narrative time to the Vietnam War and its aftermath, and yet the film’s commentary on the war is never able to reverberate beyond the sphere of intimate private relationships among U.S. men. Gump’s debts, after all, are to black and white American men; this confines the racial discourse of the film to the traumatic resolutions of antiblack white supremacy. Susan evokes both a history and racial discourse to which the film has no mechanism or motive to speak, even as it requires her presence as both witness and accomplice to Lieutenant Dan’s remasculinization.23 Her insertion into the scene of heterosexual intimacy privatizes the national narrative of war in Southeast Asia, thereby displacing the economics of accumulation that have followed U.S. interventions in the region. By this, I am referring to the significance of Gump and Lieutenant Dan’s investment in Apple Computers, an industry whose transnational circuits of production and distribution are indelibly linked to postwar capitalist expansion in Southeast Asia. If the Vietnam War cost Lieutenant Dan his legs, his economic mobility is nonetheless enabled by it, as is Gump’s, and yet it is precisely this that the film’s thematic focus on segregation, mobility, and the resurrection of a privatized U.S. nation occludes. In moving the sites of the accumulation of wealth from shrimping to computer investments, Forrest Gump depicts, without commentary, capital’s contemporary mobility from local, regional forms of industry to transnational practices of production and exchange.
With this in mind, we can return now to the opening scene of the film, in which a feather floats gently from the sky to land on Gump’s red and white Nike running shoes. As the first material detail offered of the protagonist, [End Page 132] Gump’s running shoes are simultaneously his signature and personal trademark, evincing not simply his hard-won physical mobility but his symbolic ability to move beyond the detritus of historical trauma.24 More than this, however, the Nike shoes “ground” Gump’s magical movement in an unconscious relation to a commodity that has itself become associated in the 1990s with the worst aspects of transnational modes of production. In the context of media revelations about Nike’s exploitative working conditions in Southeast Asia, the corporation’s commodity presence in Forrest Gump seems quite overtly engaged in a project of resignification. Through Gump, Nike can seek the reification of all material relations that is the effect of Gump’s mode of narration, which means participating in the film’s celebration of the detachment of state from nation. This celebration is demonstrated in two moves: first, in the way the televisual archive that Gump moves through works to disavow the power of presidents and other state leaders, and hence to undermine not simply the authority but the value of contestation at the level of the state; and second, in the way the film endorses the “shore to shore” logic of nation as geographical entity that underlies Gump’s seemingly motiveless three-year run across the United States.25 With the state represented as the site of traumatic instability, loss of decorum, or simple comic incomprehensibility, the nation arises in illustrious geographical wholeness. Transporting Gump there, beyond the historical problematic of the bus stop, are his Nike running shoes; their resignification as a private commodity relation fulfills Nike’s own corporate fantasy of an innocent (that is to say, nonexploitative) historicity.
In the figure of the shoes, then, lies the film’s investment in the simultaneous transnational accumulation of capital in the aftermath of imperial war and the reinvigoration of a national symbolic, rescued now through the individual’s pedagogical identification with the commodity (and conversely, the commodity’s identification of the individual). As Gump is marked quite literally first and foremost by the trademark, the trademark becomes the film’s earliest mechanism for ascribing to Gump a particularizing identity. [End Page 133] It is, importantly, an identity that situates him from the outset beyond the specific national contestations of the bus stop, beyond any recognition or reception of the lingering meaning of the black woman’s utterance, “My feet hurt.” Gump’s debt, after all, has been paid; compensatory justice, imaginable only at the individual level, has been achieved; all that remains is the telling of the tale. If, in the film’s formula, that telling takes shape as a walk through the archive of segregation and black-white racial relations, Gump’s innocence, which is to say his rescued whiteness, “stands” on his inexhaustible and dematerialized relation to the commodity.26 As Gump declares about his chocolates, “I could eat about a million and a half of these.”
Whiteness Studies in Forrest Gump’s America
Forrest Gump’s celebration of the white race traitor who defies the logic of segregation and the history of southern racism in order to participate innocently in the new order of global capital is certainly a far cry from the ideals of whiteness studies, which focuses on an object of study whose power and privilege it hopes to critically undo. And yet, even as the popular and the academic move toward different political goals, they both begin their projects of rearticulating a postsegregationist white identity at the site of the historical. In Forrest Gump, this entails rendering the history of violent white power incomprehensible, if not comic—the Klan leader, remember, liked “to dress up in . . . robes and . . . bed sheets and act like . . . ghosts or spooks or something.” Thus refunctioning the present as the origin for a new America no longer held in grief or guilt to a violently unredeemable past, the film confirms the ideological architecture of the contemporary anti-affirmative-action movement. That is, it offers a white subject who becomes “particular” through a claim to social injury, thereby affirming not only that all historical racial debts have been paid (and hence that the historical is itself irrelevant) but that there is finally no privileged linkage between the protocols of universality and white racial embodiment. At the same time, of course, Forrest Gump, like John Howard of the Klan, can be injured as a white (and male) subject only from the symbolic location of the universal, since it is the negation of the expectation or actuality of privilege that makes [End Page 134] social injury for whites conceivable in the first place. By this I mean that only from an implicit and prior claim to the universal can the particularity of white injury (and I am tempted to say the particularity of white identity itself) ever be articulated. Passing as a minoritized subject through the “non-sense” of the historical, the white subject thus reclaims its transcendent universality on the far side, we might say, of civil rights reform.
Whiteness studies, in contrast, turns with urgency to the historical to serve as the critical construction site for constituting a postsegregationist antiracist white subject. In four regularly cited texts—Roediger’s Wages of Whiteness and Towards the Abolition of Whiteness, Allen’s Invention of the White Race, and Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White—social historians chart the effects of industrialization, and with it wage labor, on the racialization of ethnic immigrants in the nineteenth century. In doing so, they locate whiteness not in the epidermal “reality” of white skin but in complex economic and political processes and practices. Key to the demonstration of the historical construction of whiteness is the story of the Irish who left their homeland as racialized subjects of British colonial rule to become white in the course of nineteenth-century U.S. life. As W. E. B. Du Bois diagnosed nearly a century ago in Black Reconstruction, whiteness emerges as the compensatory psychological and public “wage” that enabled various groups, especially the Irish—often called the “black Irish”—to negotiate a social status simultaneously distinct from and opposed to that of the slave or ex-slave. For Roediger, this negotiation is a tragic failure of insurgent class consciousness, since much of the force behind the discursive racialization of the Irish as black arose from their large occupation of unskilled and domestic labor. “Whiteness was a way in which white workers responded to a fear of dependency on wage labor and to the necessities of capitalist work discipline.”27 By paying close attention to the struggle of the Irish against the negative racialization that accompanied their lower-class status in the United States, Roediger demonstrates how “working class formation and the systematic development of a sense of whiteness went hand in hand for the U.S. white working class,” so much so, in fact, that the very meaning of worker would be implicitly understood as “white” by the end of the century.28
While some scholars disagree with Roediger’s tactic to emphasize the active pursuit of white identity among the Irish—Allen, for instance, says [End Page 135] these immigrants were “bamboozled” by the ruling class29—much of the work in the proliferating archive of whiteness studies depends for its political force on the disciplinary legacy of labor history put into play by Roediger. Taking conscious political action and the centrality of the subject as an agent and not simply an object of history, labor history, Roediger explains, “has consistently stressed the role of workers as creators of their own culture [and therefore] it is particularly well positioned to understand that white identity is not merely the product of elites or of discourses.”30 In this retrieval of the historical as the site of human agency, Roediger jump-starts, we might say, the critical project of imagining an antiracist white subject in the present, for if whiteness is historically produced, and if its production requires something more than the physical characteristic of skin color, then whiteness as a form of political identification, if not racial identity, can be abolished. As James Baldwin puts it, in a line that has become a banner for whiteness studies as a field, “As long as you think you are white, there’s no hope for you.”31
This stress on the active process of “unthinking” whiteness as a structure of power and privilege is certainly a compelling counter to the unconscious white subject celebrated in Forrest Gump, and it offers, through the political project mapped by labor history, a means to refunction working-class struggle as a cross-racial alliance. But once the theoretical precepts of labor history become installed as the governing disciplinary apparatus of whiteness studies—that is, once the historical retrieval of agency and the story of prewhite ethnics who choose whiteness in the tense interplay between race and class come to define the possibility of the antiracist white subject—the field begins to generate a range of contradictory, sometimes startling effects. The most critically important include: (1) an emphasis on agency that situates a theoretically humanist subject at the center of social constructionist analysis; (2) the use of class as the transfer point between [End Page 136] looking white and believing you are white; (3) a focus on economically disempowered whites, both working class and poor, as minoritized white subjects; and (4) the production of a particularized and minoritized white subject as a vehicle for contemporary critical acts of transference and transcendence, which often produces a white masculine position as discursively minor. Each of these effects must be read further in the context of the contemporary academy, where the assault against affirmative action has been aggressively pursued in a climate of employment scarcity and corporate downsizing. Such economic constrictions are crucial to understanding why the critical apparatus being forged in whiteness studies bears the unconscious trace of the liberal whiteness its reclamation of history so strenuously seeks to disavow. For in the particularity of the prewhite ethnic, whiteness studies reverses the historical process of white construction, offering for the contemporary white subject a powerful narrative of discursively black ethnic origins. History, in other words, rescues contemporary whiteness from the transcendent universalism that has been understood as its mode of productive power by providing prewhite particularity, which gets reproduced as prewhite injury and minoritization.
To trace the critical turns I have narrated above, where the social construction of whiteness is located at the historical origin of “discursive blackness,” I want to begin with a brief passage at the end of Roediger’s introductory comments in Towards the Abolition of Whiteness. Here, in an economist language of investment and divestiture, Roediger hopes to inspire working-class whites to give up the compensatory psychological and public wage of whiteness by forging class-based political identifications with people of color:
We cannot afford to ignore the political implications [that] . . . whites are confessing their confusion about whether it is really worth the effort to be white. We need to say that it is not worth it and that many of us do not want to do it. Initiatives [should] . . . expos[e] how whiteness is used to make whites settle for hopelessness in politics and misery in everyday life. . . . Our opposition should focus on contrasting the bankruptcy of white politics with the possibilities of nonwhiteness. We should point out not just that whites and people of color often have common economic interests but that people of color currently act on those interests far more consistently . . . precisely because they are not burdened by whiteness.32 [End Page 137]
Casting whiteness as the burden that prevents working-class whites from identifying their real interests, Roediger differentiates identity from identification in order to redirect the “possessive investment in whiteness” toward political allegiances with those designated as “nonwhite.”33 Such identificatory mobility is central to the social constructionist project, countering what we might think of as the political and theoretical immobility of an essentialized subject. For when looking white and being white are collapsed, white identity becomes saturated with, if not wholly indistinguishable from, political identifications with white supremacy. To pry apart this essentialized relation, Roediger emphasizes the mobility of political identifications, and, in doing so, he claims economic marginality as the political location for the production of the antiracist subject. Such marginality is a space of prior occupation where those “unburdened by whiteness” already, epistemologically speaking, live. Working-class whites need to “cross over” there, to trade against the faulty essentialist confederacy between white power and white skin, in order to discover the class “interests” that are already theirs. In using class as the mechanism for this transportation, Roediger’s critical model passes through the prewhite ethnic to a complex citing of cross-racial economic affinities to secure a future of postwhite working-class struggle.
In the context of my conversation about the trope of mobility in Forrest Gump, the theoretical moves articulated here reverse the political investment but not the spatializing logic that accompanies the popularized “race-traitoring” white subject in the postsegregationist era: It is the white subject who crosses the segregationist boundaries of both knowledge and political identification while people of color remain politically identified with the social margins, where the relation between race and class is more intimately, one hesitates to say more essentially, interested. The force of social construction as a theoretical vocabulary for agency thus posits the agency of people of color as an effect of their marginal social position; hence, identifications and identities are identical. For the antiracist white subject, it is the incommensurability between racial identity and political identification that bears the fruit of the constructionist enterprise, enabling a claim to particularity that rewrites the universal as a burden that must be shorn. Marked as the difference within whiteness, the antiracist white subject becomes particular by asserting a political difference from its racial “self.” Roediger [End Page 138] names this difference “nonwhiteness” and, in doing so, not only reconvenes an essentialized elision of white with racist but demonstrates how overwritten is the antiracist subject by universal privilege itself. After all, the white subject’s claim to nonwhite particularity can be asserted only from the position of the universal, since it is in the space of the universal, and never the particular, that the theoretical mobility of political identification by definition takes place. This is not to charge Roediger with the failure to provide us with a seamless model of the antiracist subject but to remark on the way that the desire to combat white privilege seems unable to generate a political project against racism articulated from the site of whiteness itself.34 In other words, only in becoming “nonwhite,” only in retrieving a prewhite ethnicity, can the antiracist subject be invented, and this is the case in much of the productions of both the popular and academic realms.
It is not a surprise, therefore, that the activist quasi-academic journal Race Traitor locates its antiracist project in “abolish[ing] the white race from within.”35 Troping the emphasis on conscious agency drawn from labor history and finding political sustenance in individual narratives of race traitoring, the various essays collected in Race Traitor posit white abolitionism as necessary for “solving the social problems of our age” (RT, 10). In the opening editorial to the Routledge volume, which collects the first five issues of the journal, editors Ignatiev and Garvey describe the Race Traitor project: “The existence of the white race depends on the willingness of those assigned to it to place their racial interests above class [or] gender. . . . The defection of enough of its members . . . will set off tremors that will lead to its collapse. Race Traitor aims to serve as an intellectual center for those seeking to abolish the white race” (RT, 9–10). Guided by the principle “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity” (RT, 10), Race Traitor envisions treason on a number of fronts, from verbal retorts to racist jokes or commentaries to interracial marriage, to cross-racial identifications in politics, [End Page 139] fashion, and music. “What makes you think I am white?” is the quintessential race traitor question, and its deployment in the face of the police is one of the most heralded abolitionist acts. As Garvey and Ignatiev write in “The New Abolitionism,”
The cops look at a person and then decide on the basis of color whether that person is loyal to or an enemy of the system they are sworn to serve and protect . . . [T]he cops don’t know for sure if the white person to whom they give a break is loyal to them; they assume it. . . . What if the police couldn’t tell a loyal person just by color? What if there were enough people around who looked white but were really enemies of official society so that the cops couldn’t tell whom to beat and whom to let off? . . . With color no longer serving as a handy guide for the distribution of penalties and rewards, European-Americans of the downtrodden class would at least be compelled to face with sober sense their real condition of life and their relations with humankind. It would be the end of the white race.36
In thus forging a “new minority determined to break up the white race,” Garvey and Ignatiev join Roediger in constructing a model of the mobile antiracist subject whose conscious political production not only particularizes whiteness by citing its power but does so in order to craft for economically disenfranchised whites a generative and ultimately antiracist class politics.37
If this description of Race Traitor suggests a coherent intellectual and activist project, it is important to stress that contributions to the journal vary widely in political content. This is due in part to the collective nature of the journal and to its mediation between activist and academic political sites. It is also a consequence, it seems to me, of the difficulties that abound in transposing nineteenth-century antislavery abolition into the paradigmatic site for constructing a late-twentieth-century antiracist subject. By affirming as heroic and antiwhite the work of such abolitionists as John Brown, leader of the failed slave revolt at Harper’s Ferry, Race Traitor reinscribes the centrality of white masculine leadership even as it posits such leadership as historical evidence for the abolition of the white race. “How many dissident so-called whites would it take to unsettle the nerves of the white executive board? It is impossible to know. One John Brown—against a background [End Page 140] of slave resistance—was enough for Virginia” (RT, 13). Overly drawn to masculine models of armed retaliation, Race Traitor effectively evacuates altogether the feminist trajectory of nineteenth-century abolitionism, reproducing instead the white male rebel as the affirmative subject of antiracist struggle. Such affirmation, situated in the context of essays about the Irish and prewhite immigrants, symptomatically demonstrates the oscillation between universal privilege and minoritized particularity that characterizes not only the history of white subject formation in the United States but the critical apparatus of whiteness studies itself.
Race Traitor’s implicit response to its own critical contradiction of abolishing whiteness in a frame of white masculine heroic narrativity is to situate the African American as the quintessential American. Ignatiev writes, “The adoption of a white identity is the most serious barrier to becoming fully American . . . [T]he United States is an Afro-American country. . . . Above all, the experience of people from Africa in the New World represents the distillation of the American experience, and this concentration of history finds its expression in the psychology, culture, and national character of the American people” (RT, 18–19). Thus defining the abolition of whiteness as the precondition for becoming American, Ignatiev retrieves an American exceptionalist logic that displaces the historical white subject as the national citizen-subject for a narrative of national origin cast now as black.38 In doing so, a metaphoric “America” of national longing supplants the materialist “America” through which state violence—physical, economic, and ideological—has guaranteed the juridical privileges of whiteness. Leaving aside the many ways this formulation eradicates a range of groups and experiences, it is significant how important to Race Traitor is the resignification of the nation as part of a reclamation of the “human.” “It is not black people who have been prevented from drawing upon the full variety of experience that has gone into making up America. Rather, it is those who, in maddened pursuit of the white whale, have cut themselves off from human society” (RT, 19). The abolition of whiteness reclaims the democratic possibility of human sociality, itself a characteristic of the resignified nation. [End Page 141]
My focus on the language of nation and national identity is meant to recall the ideological work of Forrest Gump and its mobile protagonist, whose fantastic projection of a postsegregationist America entailed the literal and symbolic remapping of the American territorial nation. In Gump’s claim to what Berlant calls “the normal,” the white male subject reconstructs itself on the grounds of a fabled sentimentality, with all state-based debts paid and a reproductive future of politically uncontaminated subjectivity guaranteed. In Race Traitor, the editors seek not so much the normal but the “ordinary” as the contrast to the state: “The ordinary people of no country have ever been so well prepared to rule a society as the Americans of today” (RT, 4). This is because, in Ignatiev’s words, “few Americans of any ethnic background take a direct hand in the denial of equality to people of color” (RT, 16–17). The conscious agency that defines the becoming white of the prewhite ethnic is strategically dissolved in the present, where the ordinary person is theoretically divested of taking a committed interest in the perpetuation of white racial privilege. Indeed, whiteness, while the object under investigation and ultimate destruction, is exteriorized to such an extent that the conscious agency heralded as necessary to undo it has no theoretical hold on the interior constitution of the subject. In contrast to Roediger’s work, there is, in Race Traitor, no psychological depth to whiteness as a social construction, merely an interpretative inscription based on skin that can be consciously refused: “The white race is a club, which enrolls certain people at birth, without their consent, and brings them up according to its rules. For the most part the members go through life accepting the benefits of membership, without thinking about the costs. When individuals question the rules, the officers are quick to remind them of all they owe to the club, and warn them of the dangers they will face if they leave it. Race Traitor aims to dissolve the club, break it apart, to explode it” (RT, 10–11). In dissolving the club, in revealing the “costs” of membership to be the failure of whites to be fully American, Race Traitor’s postsegregationist antiracist subject emerges, against the power of the state, as an emblem of a coherent nation.
The construction of the antiracist subject in Race Traitor thus goes something like this: Whiteness is understood as the consequence of a universalizing pact between white skin color and white club privilege, one that deprives white people of a positive relation both to humanity and to American national identity. White supremacy is less an effect of individual activities and ideologies than the consequence of institutions of state power, which themselves alienate the ordinary citizen who is neither directly nor [End Page 142] enthusiastically involved in the oppression of people of color. In this way, the contributors in Race Traitor assume, as does Roediger, that cross-racial class alliance is the locus of more urgent and identifiable political interests for the majority of whites, though Race Traitor is dedicated to the possibility of a “minority” of traitors—not, as in Roediger’s works, a mass class movement—that performs the work of abolishing white supremacy. This work involves making whiteness visible as a racial category by interrupting the “natural” assumption that people who look white are invested in being white. Race traitors must thus mark whiteness as a racialized particular in order to perform their disaffiliation from the universality that underwrites the category; such performance is understood as the necessary claim to an antiracist subjectivity. This is, it seems to me, the performative force of the race traitor question, “What makes you think I am white?” which simultaneously and paradoxically refuses the position of the universally unmarked by ultimately claiming to be no longer marked by it. In asserting the particularity of white racial identity as a preamble to refusing it altogether, the race traitor passes through both the universal and the particular in order to found a new minority of former white people. Counting on the power of individual disavowal of the juridical white subject of state power, Race Traitor reimagines an empowered humanist subject whose intent to repeal its own whiteness is consecrated as the central practice of antiracist struggle.
In White Trash: Race and Class in America, Newitz’s essay “White Savagery and Humiliation” is especially critical of the reliance on self-consciousness that underwrites the new abolitionism. When Race Traitor, for instance, asserts its aim to abolish the white race by hailing those who are dissatisfied with the terms of membership in the white club, Newitz questions the self-congratulatory mode that enables whites “to critique themselves before anyone else does.”39 From her perspective, the problem with the abolitionist project is its spectacularization of white humiliation as a mode of political insurgency, since it is finally the specter of self-destruction that enables the abolitionist’s heroic refashioning. As a counterstrategy, Newitz seeks to disaffiliate white racial identity from the practices and institutions of white supremacy:
We are asked [by the abolitionists] to demonize whiteness rather than to deconstruct it. . . . Social problems like unequally distributed [End Page 143] resources, class privilege, irrational prejudice, and tyrannical bureaucracy which we associate with whiteness are just that—associated with whiteness. . . . They are not essential to whiteness itself, any more than laziness and enslavement are essential to blackness. . . . Informing whites that their identities are the problem, rather than various social practices, makes it sound like whites should die rather than that white racism should. The ideologies of white power which make some white people socially destructive are the symptoms of American inequality and injustice, not its principle [sic] causes.(WT, 149–50)
Disembodying white racial power by differentiating it from identity, Newitz pursues a de-essentialized whiteness, one that can hold its own, so to speak, in the same grammatical gesture as the antiessentialist analysis of blackness. In the process, the empowered privileges of whiteness and the stereotypes that degrade blackness take on an analytical equivalency as whiteness is situated as an identity object in need of the same resignification that has accompanied the civil rights and black power struggle over and in the name of blackness. “While whiteness is undeniably linked to a series of oppressive social practices, it is also an identity which can be negotiated on an individual level. It is a diversity of cultures” (WT, 148). Such diversity points toward the possibility, as coeditors Wray and Newitz write in the anthology’s introduction, of “a more realistic and fair-minded understanding of whiteness as a specific, racially marked group existing in relation to many other such groups” (WT, 5).
The desire for a critical paradigm that can approach both black and white on quite literally the same terms—in a mode of theoretical equal opportunity—shapes White Trash at a number of levels. For instance, when the editors write that “whiteness is an oppressive ideological construct that promotes and maintains social inequalities, causing great material and psychological harm to both people of color and whites” (WT, 3), they inadvertently construct a mutuality-of-harm hypothesis that powerfully appends whites to the harmed position of people of color. This move cojoins the rendering of white trash as “not just a classist slur—it’s also a racial epithet that marks out certain whites as a breed apart” (WT, 2). The double reading of white trash as classist and racist is fundamental to White Trash’s articulation of itself as an antiracist project: “Our anthology is intended as an intervention in this field [of whiteness studies], offering a critical understanding of how differences within whiteness—differences marked out by categories [End Page 144] like white trash—may serve to undo whiteness as racial supremacy, helping to produce multiple, indeterminate, and anti-racist forms of white identity” (WT, 4). But how does one arrive at a notion that the class oppression that poor whites experience is also a racial oppression, and further that the very category of white trash can serve as a model of antiracist forms of white identity?
Wray and Newitz begin by noting that the term white trash has been traced to African American origins, being deployed by slaves as a mode of insult and differentiation in relation to white servants. This origin story, they write, “in the context of black slavery and white servitude speaks to the racialized roots of the meaning of the term” (WT, 2). Racialized in what sense? As a mechanism of institutional power? As a force of subordination? The authors don’t say, and it is in this failure to explore the nexus of power embedded in the origin story that allows white trash to be cast as a racialization with minoritizing effects. This becomes fully clear, it seems to me, in the introduction’s quick turn to the “eugenic family studies” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in which models of genetic defect previously used to define black inferiority were used to investigate poor white bodies. But the authors do not cite the relationship between eugenics and the long traditions of scientific and medical renderings of biologically based ideas of African and African American racial difference; instead, their descriptive language of the consequences of eugenics on the enduring stereotypes of poor whites replicates—and comes to stand in for—stereotypes explicitly connected to racist images of blackness:
The eugenic family studies . . . [were] used . . . as propaganda . . . [for] call[s] to end all forms of welfare and private giving to the poor. . . . [T]he stereotypes of rural poor whites as incestuous and sexually promiscuous, violent, alcoholic, lazy, and stupid remain with us to this day. Alarmingly, contemporary conservative[s] . . . have resurrected this line of biological determinist thinking, blaming white trash for many of the nation’s ills and . . . call[ing] for an end of the welfare state. Indeed, the widespread popularity of Hernnstein and Murray’s The Bell Curve speaks to a renewed interest in U.S. social Darwinism as an explanation for cultural and class differences.(WT, 2–3)
The political valence of white trash in a slave economy, in which servitude has very different meanings for blacks and whites, is compressed under the weight of the eugenics model, and white trash begins to take on the [End Page 145] significatory power of a racialized minority itself: “Because white trash is a classed and racialized identity degraded by dominant whiteness, a white trash position vis-à-vis whiteness might be compared to a ‘racial minority’ position vis-à-vis whiteness” (WT, 5).
The consequences of these critical moves are multiple: The insistence on white trash as a minoritizing racialization simultaneously disarticulates racism from institutionalized practices of discrimination based on a group’s designated racial status while crafting for poor whites a position structurally comparable to that of the racial minority. In doing so, an antiracist project for whites is inaugurated at the site of a harmed and discriminated whiteness. As Wray and Newitz declare at the outset: “Americans love to hate the poor. Lately, it seems there is no group of poor folks they like to hate more than white trash” (WT, 1).40 In an important contrast to Race Traitor and the critical tradition offered by labor history, the elucidation of the white permanent and working poor does not function here to establish a mobile antiracist white subject who can transfer, through the interestedness of class position, identification from the wages of whiteness to collective antiracist struggle with people of color. Instead, the model forged in White Trash is one in which the psychological wages of whiteness defined by Du Bois and taken up by Roediger are supplanted by emphasizing whiteness as a material privilege—and one whose security has decidedly lessened: “As the economy and unemployment figures in the U.S. worsen, more whites are losing jobs to downsizing and corporate restructuring, or taking pay cuts. While it used to be that whites gained job security at the expense of other racial groups, whiteness in itself no longer seems a sure path to a good income” (WT, 7).41 In the context of the introduction’s larger [End Page 146] and at times deeply contradictory framework, the above assertion functions to produce the power of whiteness as a fully (and seemingly only) materialized economic relation; hence, when material advantage does not exist, one becomes a racialized minority, albeit within whiteness. In measuring the comparable worth of marginality in this way, White Trash’s intervention into whiteness studies produces, we might say, a white identity formation that has no compensatory racial debt to pay.
What generates this compulsion for a minoritized whiteness that is not “expensive” to people of color? Or, more precisely, why does the production of a minoritized whiteness become the seemingly necessary precondition for an antiracist project? Part of the answer to this question is lodged, as this essay has been suggesting, in the contradictions between universality and particularity that characterize contemporary postsegregationist racial formation, especially as particularity has become the invested sign for the creation of antiracist equalities. But particularity is not essentially antiessentialist, nor does it guarantee the white subject’s disaffiliation from the powers and pretensions of universality. There is, it seems to me, no theoretical, historical, or methodological escape from the impossibility of the antiracist white subject, partly because the very focus on the subject has far too much of the universal at stake.
Objects of Study in Times of Scarcity
To think about whiteness studies as a field means, then, addressing its own social construction, which is to say that we need to consider how the various formulations of whiteness (as mobile class identification, as self-conscious becoming, as the minority within itself) are situated within contemporary formations of identity, politics, and knowledge. For if, in the Right’s version of the popular realm, white men are rescued from a narrative of U.S. history contaminated by their privilege, whiteness studies seems to offer the Left’s hyperconscious other side, likewise particularizing whiteness in order to transcend it. This is not to suggest a faulty analogy between whiteness studies and the liberal whiteness of Forrest Gump’s America, nor is it to deny the enabling possibilities of forging a distinction between having white skin and identifying with white skin privilege. It is neither a dismissal of the significance of reading the historical record of immigration, labor, and slavery in ways that allow us to seriously define the social construction of whiteness nor an endorsement of a monolithic rendering of whiteness that fails to attend to the complicated local practices through which ethnic identity [End Page 147] has been racialized in majoritarian or minoritarian ways. It is rather an interest in the powerful complicities of disciplinary knowledge that leads me to question how the study of whiteness has taken shape, why it has become so invested in figures of disadvantaged whites, why it has been silent about the materiality of its own production in the academy, and why it emerges as a recognizable field in its own right—worthy now of a name that signifies off of and seems to form a symmetry with ethnic studies—at that point in its development when white scholars turn their critical gaze onto whiteness as an object of study.
I raise these issues not to dismiss the political desire that motivates so much academic labor on whiteness as an object of study but to emphasize that the possessive investment in whiteness, as Lipsitz calls it, has institutional form and force. Whiteness studies emerges, after all, in the midst of a devastating lack of employment in the academy, one that many commentators connect to the denationalization of education that has accompanied the dissolution of the cold war. In the downsizing of the university and the proletarianization of its intellectual work force, many of the privileges that have ensured the white hegemony of the intellectual elite have been called into question. New doctorates, especially in the humanities and social sciences, are finding themselves accepting part-time and nontenure-track appointments, and it is not rare to hear both white faculty and graduate students declare that only people of color have escaped the employment crisis of higher education.42 In addition, many of the disciplines that have upheld the centrality of the Anglo-European tradition (German, French, and Italian) are now under duress, so much so that a few universities are actually considering the possibility of collapsing these departments into a European area studies program. This, combined with the fact that the academy is leading the way in the institutional dismantling of affirmative action, necessitates not a dismissal of the university as extraneous to the political project of abolishing or transforming whiteness but a heightened attention to it.
Such attention begins, as this essay has suggested, by linking the discourses of the academy with the popular public sphere and by tracing the disciplinary discourses and methodological assumptions that have mobilized whiteness studies as an emergent field. I have done the former in order to evoke the historicity of the present that governs the representational [End Page 148] forms of white supremacy and to trace those contradictions that reveal how critical explanations of the present are not inoculations against it but effects of and struggles with the present’s insidious power. I have focused on the disciplinary discourses that have shaped the scholarly archive on whiteness and the subsequent field formulation of whiteness studies in order to establish a critical perspective on a seemingly new object of study, one whose status as such has been cited as its antiracist political guarantee. This critical perspective is necessary to disrupt the institutional knowledge investments that accompany every disciplinary gesture—those investments whereby the authority of knowers is established by the reproducibility of a chosen object of study. Legitimate objects are never exhaustible; they do not become knowledge objects as a means for their destruction. To consecrate the study of white racial identity and power as a field formation called whiteness studies (as opposed to its earlier operation within ethnic studies) is not to divest whiteness of its authority and power but to rearticulate the locus of its identity claims from the universal to the particular. It is this rearticulation that I have defined as the project of “liberal whiteness” in the popular sphere, and it has been its logic of intellectual and identitarian mobility that I have critiqued as the theoretical foundation of whiteness studies as an emergent field. For neither the epistemological status of whiteness as the implicit framework for the organization of what we know as the human sciences nor the epistemological status of white scholars as the authorized agents of institutional knowledge is called into question by a field called whiteness studies.
To render whiteness the object of study from within the province of a humanist subject now hyperconscious of itself thus mistakes the way that even radical traditions within modern knowledge formations are not innocently prior to but are decisively and unpredictably implicated in the histories and inequalities of racial asymmetries and oppressions. The political project that generates knowledge formations and the political consequences of their generation cannot be unequivocally coordinated, which is to say that the social construction of white racial identities and ideologies that are the object of study in whiteness studies arises in the context of ongoing historical processes. These processes have reworked the relation between universality and particularity that constitutes the negotiated hegemony of white power and have made possible new and powerful attacks on civil rights legislation—all as part of a contradictory reconfiguration of the public discourse of race and white racial identity in the postsegregationist era. Far from operating as the opposite or resistant counter to the universal, then, [End Page 149] the particular is the necessary contradiction that affords to white power its historical and political elasticity. In this context, the political project for the study of whiteness entails not simply rendering whiteness particular but engaging with the ways that being particular will not divest whiteness of its universal epistemological power.
Robyn Wiegman is director of Women’s Studies and associate professor of women’s studies and English at the University of California, Irvine. She has published American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender (Duke University Press, 1995) and three edited collections: Who Can Speak? Authority and Critical Identity (1995), Feminism beside Itself (1995), and AIDS and the National Body: Writings by Thomas Yingling (Duke University Press, 1997). She is currently completing a manuscript on feminist knowledge formations and the university called Feminism after the Disciplines.
1. I have drawn my information about the original Laurens controversy over the Klan Museum from Rick Bragg, “In a South Carolina Town, a Klan Museum Opens Old Wounds,” New York Times, 17 November 1996, sec. 1, p. 16. Subsequent twists and turns of the story are fascinating. Apparently, John Howard sold the Echo Theater to his Klan protégé, Michael Burden, who, through his fiancée, was converted into an antiracist. When Burden sold the theater to the local black preacher, Reverend David Kennedy, Howard was given a lifetime guarantee that he could continue to run, rent-free, his museum. The museum is thus housed now in a building owned by an African American, and it is his church that has taken in Burden, who has been routinely thwarted in his attempts to find steady employment in Laurens. See “Converted by Love, a Former Klansman Finds Ally at Black Church,” Washington Post, 27 July 1997, sec. A, p. 3.
2. That being white is here a transaction of “race” into a moneymaking business lends further credence to George Lipsitz’s suggestion that white identity primarily constitutes itself through propertied investments, whether literal or imaginary. See “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: Racialized Social Democracy and the ‘White’ Problem in American Studies,” American Quarterly 47, no. 3 (September 1995): 369–87, for a discussion of how national policies in the twentieth century furthered the political agenda of white racial supremacy. For instance, FHA housing programs funneled money to white Americans in the suburbs instead of into multiethnic urban neighborhoods, thereby restructuring in more segregated ways the racialization of social space in the second half of the twentieth century. See also George Sanchez’s useful response to Lipsitz’s article in the same issue, “Reading Reginald Denny: The Politics of Whiteness in the Late Twentieth Century” (388–94). In a somewhat different vein, see Cheryl Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review 106, no. 8 (June 1993): 1710–91.
3. In States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995), Wendy Brown discusses the replacement of rights for freedoms in the national political lexicon, which has produced what she means by her title: political inclusion as a state of injury. Analyzing the broad scope in which injury-based claims have come to supplant conversations about freedom, she notes that even leftists have become “disoriented about the project of freedom,” concerning themselves “not with democratizing power but with distributing goods, and especially with pressuring the state to buttress the rights and increase the entitlements of the socially vulnerable or disadvantaged” (5).
4. On citizenship, abstraction, and the promise of the universal, see Michael Warner, “The Mass Public and the Mass Subject,” in Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig Calhoun (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), 377–401.
5. During Reconstruction, the ranks of white supremacy swelled from the shared belief in the ascendancy of a new privileged blackness and with it white injury. See Edward L. Ayers, Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Publishment in the 19th Century American South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), esp. “The Crisis of the New South,” 223–65; and Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), esp. 77–89 and 94–99.
6. Jessie Daniels’s White Lies: Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality in White Supremacist Discourse (New York: Routledge, 1997) provides an analysis of the documents of contemporary white supremacist organizations, exploring in particular the language of “victimization” (see esp. 35–43).
7. Richard Dyer, White (New York: Routledge, 1997), 2.
8. And yet, in seeking for whiteness a particularity that can counter its universal status, Dyer also figures whiteness as “too specific.” He writes, “White people—not there as a category and everywhere everything as a fact—are difficult, if not impossible, to analyse qua white. The subject seems to fall apart in your hands as soon as you begin. Any instance of white representation is always immediately something more specific—Brief Encounter is not about white people, it is about English middle-class people; The Godfather is not about white people, it is about Italian-American people; but The Color Purple is about black people, before it is about poor, southern U.S. people” (“White,” Screen 29, no. 4 [autumn 1988]: 46). To the extent that Dyer’s description of the function of the ideology of whiteness as infinite particularity counters the theoretical assumption grafted from it—that whiteness is the category of invisibility and nonparticularity—the theoretical articulation of whiteness has been stalled in the collapse of two registers of analysis: (1) the description of the effect of white identity formation that improperly served as its theoretical formulation; and (2) a theoretical formulation that cannot render the historical specificity and material production of its description.
9. Two decades ago, Stuart Hall provided the theoretical language for this observation in his writings about the Caribbean: “Most societies with complex social structures achieve their ‘unity’ via the relations of domination/subordination between culturally different and differential strata. What we are required to ‘think’ is the nature of the differences which constitute the specific ‘unity’ and complexity of any social formation. The ‘unity’ of a social formation is never a simple, undifferentiated unity. Once we grasp the two ends, so to speak, of this chain—differentiated specificity/complex unity—we see that we are required to account, not simply for the existence of culturally distinct institutions and patterns, but also for that which secures the unity, cohesion and stability of this social order in and through (not despite) its difference” (“Pluralism, Race, and Class in Caribbean Society,” in Race and Class in Post-Colonial Society: A Study of Ethnic Group Relations in the English-Speaking Caribbean, Bolivia, Chile, and Mexico [Paris: UNESCO, 1977], 158).
10. Many of the more reactionary reformations of white power and privilege currently go undetected by whites, from white suburban flight and the proliferation of gated communities to the privatization of institutions of higher learning and the growth of the prison industry, from the English-only movement to the resurrection of states’ rights, from bans on public welfare for immigrants to procapital international trade agreements. Instead, John Howard’s Klan and its spawn are taken as the American practice of white supremacy in total, which is just one of the many ways that the reconstruction of Civil Rights Reconstruction has been accomplished.
11. See Howard Winant, “Behind Blue Eyes: Whiteness and Contemporary U.S. Racial Politics,” in Off White: Readings on Race, Power, and Society, ed. Michelle Fine, Lois Weis, Linda C. Powell, and L. Mun Wong (New York: Routledge, 1997), 40, 49, 43.
12. See Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race, vol. 1 (London: Verso, 1994); Daniels, White Lies; Fine, Weis, Powell, and Wong, eds., Off White; Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993); Mike Hill, ed., Whiteness: A Critical Reader (New York: New York University Press, 1997); Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1995); Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey, eds., Race Traitor (New York: Routledge, 1996); Ian F. Haney Lopez, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race (New York: New York University Press, 1996); Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Fred Pfeil, White Guys: Studies in Postmodern Domination and Difference (London: Verso, 1995); David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1991), and Towards the Abolition of Whiteness: Essays on Race, Politics, and Working Class History (London: Verso, 1994); Alexander Saxton, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century America (London: Verso, 1990); Mab Segrest, Memoir of a Race Traitor (Boston: South End, 1994); Vron Ware, Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism, and History (London: Verso, 1992); and Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz, eds., White Trash: Race and Class in America (New York: Routledge, 1996).
The genealogies being constructed for the field by the academic press and within some of the scholarship are interesting in their omissions. Whiteness studies tends to be described as a project devoted to dismantling whiteness from a white perspective, which disturbingly disassociates scholarship from the various ethnic studies areas as being part of the scholarly archive on the social construction of whiteness. Early feminist work, as in Elly Bulkin, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and Barbara Smith, Yours in Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives on Anti-Semitism and Racism (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Long Haul, 1984), is also jettisoned from the new multidisciplinary scheme. These moves reconvene the logic of white masculinity as the generic subject even as the ideological hold of that subject is supposed to be under abolition. See esp. David W. Stowe, “Uncolored People: The Rise of Whiteness Studies,” Lingua Franca 6, no. 6 (September/October 1996): 68–77.
13. Private correspondence, 18 August 1997. My thanks to George Lipsitz for his thoughtful and thorough consideration of the issues raised in this essay.
14. For a fascinating analysis of black resistance to public transportation segregation in Birmingham during World War II, see Robin D. G. Kelley, “Contested Terrain,” in Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York: Free Press, 1994), 55–75.
15. I visited the Civil Rights Institute while in Birmingham to deliver the earliest version of this essay, which means that the juxtaposition between it and Forrest Gump originates in a kind of fruitful accident, as opposed to a definitive intertextual exchange. But it was in that museum, with its window—both a screen and a frame—looking out at the Baptist church, that the implications of the film’s technological mastery of television, its use of TV memory as the vehicle for encoding and deflecting national crisis and struggle, and its long incomprehensible narrative deliberation on Gump’s running trek across the nation began to make sense as tropes/motifs in the renarrativization of segregation from the vantage point of white masculinity. My thanks to Theresa Kemp for organizing that visit.
16. As the red, white, and blue buses intermittently obstruct the camera’s view of the bus stop, Forrest’s narrative advances from his early childhood through his college career, his tour in Vietnam, his various business adventures that render him a millionaire, and back to the film’s final resting place, the heterosexual reproductive domestic sphere. Each person who listens to Gump is keyed by race and gender to the significant events of his narrative: The black woman gets the story of Gump’s physical and mental difference, the discriminatory treatment handed him, and his final transcendence of the leg braces; the white women hear portions of the romance narrative, which culminates in Gump’s marriage to Jenny; and the white male listens to the episodes of war and economic accumulation. Notable here is the absence of the black male as audience as well as the schematic representation of race as a singularly black/white affair.
17. Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1997), 5, 185.
18. It is interesting to consider the backhanded compliment that the film offers to white southern men: They are crafted as the bearers of a history that they can in somewhat heroic terms negate, but that negation is effected through a stupefying return to native unintelligence. This characteristic “stupidity” is itself a well-worn stereotype of the southerner, playing a role in the ongoing tension between white particularity (constructed this time along the axis of region) and a normative liberal whiteness whose political, geographical, and ethnic origins are displaced.
19. The most extensive reading of Forrest Gump in the context of feminist analyses of gender is Thomas B. Byers, “History Re-membered: Forrest Gump, Postfeminist Masculinity, and the Burial of the Counterculture,” Modern Fiction Studies 42, no. 2 (summer 1996): 420–44.
20. This point is explicitly reinforced in the film through Gump’s parodic commentary on the white bed sheets worn by members of the Klan. As the figure of white skin, the bed sheets can be cast off by Klan descendants, which means that the materialization of privilege symbolized by and invested in white skin has itself no necessary historical lineage. My thanks to Eva Cherniavsky for suggesting this reading of white skin.
21. Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” 1781.
22. More crucially, I am struck by the absence of the black male as a witness to Gump’s story at the bus stop. Why this evacuation of the black male from the scene of the bus stop, this denial of his participation as audience for Gump’s national tale? Why the spectacular use of the black male as the protagonist’s twin, buddy double—Bubba—who seems destined to die? On the one hand, the film’s failure to imagine the black male as a witness to Gump’s tale demonstrates the function of black male embodiment as the signifying means for constructing white liberal morality. Bubba’s death offers to Gump the rationale for white retribution, a debt that can be paid. On the other hand, the film’s positioning of Bubba symbolically feminizes blackness, as he comes to occupy the place of Jenny in the second scene of exclusion and outsider bonding on the school bus. It is Jenny, after all, who allows Gump a place to sit on the bus in the earliest scene, when all the white boys have denied him room; when this racialized site is plumbed a second time, Bubba occupies the narrative space initially held by Jenny, and both of them by the end of the film die (Jenny from an illness implicitly framed as AIDS and Bubba in the Vietnam War). These deaths, as the deaths of the feminine and of the black male buddy, are crucial to Gump’s simultaneous claim to and transcendence of injury, since they mark specific bodies as the bearers of national trauma—Jenny, we see, travels through the antiwar and drug cultures of the ’60s and ’70s, while Bubba becomes the fallen emblem of the war—and they do so within a context that disaffiliates white masculinity from the historical power and privilege of its social and economic position.
23. On the broader contexts of the remasculinization of the white Vietnam veteran, see Susan Jeffords, The Remasculinization of America: Gender and the Vietnam War (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1989).
24. Gump wears other kinds of shoes in the film, but the meditation on shoes that opens the film—and subsequent meditations on his mobility—revolves around the Nike running shoes. Even the advertisements for the film, both in theaters and on video, feature Gump in his Nike running shoes.
25. Gump’s run, while denied an explanation in the film, begins the day after 4 July—the day after Jenny has “run off” without explanation. In the final scenes of the narrative, we will find out that it was their encounter on the Fourth of July that created “Little Forrest,” thereby reinforcing the relation between paternity and the futurity of the nation.
26. I owe two notes of thanks here. One is to Eva Cherniavsky, who offered me an understanding of the material investment in whiteness as a relation of inexhaustibility to the commodity. The other is to Patricia McKee, who discussed with me the way that whiteness needs to be thought as a process of simultaneous materialization and dematerialization.
27. Roediger, Wages of Whiteness, 13.
28. Roediger, Wages of Whiteness, 8.
29. Allen, Invention of the White Race, 1: 199. Jonathan Scott discusses the differences between Roediger and Allen in his review article “Inside the White Corral,” Minnesota Review 47 (fall 1996): 93–103.
30. Roediger, Abolition of Whiteness, 75–76.
31. As Roediger explains, “Complexity arises when we cease to regard racial and ethnic identities as categories into which individuals simply are ‘slotted.’ . . . James Baldwin’s point that Europeans arrived in the U.S. and became white—‘by deciding they were white’—powerfully directs our attention to the fact that white ethnics . . . by and large chose whiteness, and even struggled to be recognized as white” (Abolition of Whiteness, 185). See James Baldwin, “On Being ‘White’ . . . and Other Lies,” Essence 14, no. 12 (April 1984): 90–92.
32. Roediger, Abolition of Whiteness, 16–17; my emphasis.
33. See David R. Roediger, “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: Racialized Social Democracy and the ‘White’ Problem in American Studies,” American Quarterly 47, no. 3 (September 1995): 369–87.
34. One of the challenges of thinking about the antiracist subject in the contemporary period is precisely to imagine that subject’s political practices within categories of racialization that confer privileges based on color of skin. The current critical interest in rendering the visible unintelligible as a realist determination of racial belonging and self-definition does not undo the force of the visible as this culture’s reigning logic, even if it unearths its faulty epistemology. No matter how many exceptional cases of passing and of nonwhite whiteness we can cite, it is the desire to make these paradigmatic for the material histories of racialized bodies that must be examined.
35. Ignatiev and Garvey, eds., Race Traitor, 2. Subsequent references to this work are cited parenthetically as RT.
36. John Garvey and Noel Ignatiev, “The New Abolitionism,” Minnesota Review 47 (fall 1996): 105–6.
37. Garvey and Ignatiev, “New Abolitionism,” 107.
38. “What is the distinctive element of the American experience?” Ignatiev writes. “It is the shock of being torn from a familiar place and hurled into a new environment, compelled to develop a way of life and culture from the materials at hand. And who more embodies that experience, is more the essential product of that experience, than the descendants of the people from Africa who visited these shores together with the first European explorers . . . and whose first settlers were landed here a year before the Mayflower?” (RT, 19).
39. Annalee Newitz, “White Savagery and Humiliation, or a New Racial Consciousness in the Media,” in White Trash, ed. Wray and Newitz, 149. Subsequent references to White Trash are cited parenthetically as WT.
40. In drawing attention to the discourse of injury, I do not mean to discount—and I feel like I need to say this in capital letters—the importance of analyzing the many ways that the white permanent and working poor are representationally “trashed” in U.S. popular culture. Nor do I mean to obviate the way that both Wray and Newitz remark in their introduction on the problem of a vulgar multiculturalism that attends to whiteness only as victim. But I do think that the introduction is contradictory enough that these caveats are not constitutively formulated within the project’s theorization of the permanent poor; rather, the very risks that the authors note seem to be the foundational effects of their discursive practices.
41. In “Partners in Crime,” his contribution to White Trash, Timothy J. Lockley focuses on nonslaveholding whites in the antebellum period under a similar set of disturbing assumptions: “Whiteness per se was not a ticket to the life of leisure. Living in a society which was based on a system of human bondage, and having little or no part in that particular system, gave non-slaveholding whites a unique social status” (WT, 59).
42. Evidence actually indicates the contrary. In a survey of recipients of the Ford Foundation Minority Fellowship, 80 percent failed to be placed in permanent jobs.