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Introduction: Through the Ethnographic Looking Glass Mike Hill How does it feel to be a problem? —W.E.B. Du Bois A little over ten years ago, let's say around 1981, a new possibility emerged around the vexed question of race. This possibility held forth in the context of an awkwardness noted foremost by feminists of color, an awkwardness inherent when members of the dominant culture were alleged to have spoke unchecked for those on its margins. I should rephrase that sentence and say—members of the racially dominant culture —since, as I read the history, white feminists realized around 1981 that there were margins other than (and marginal to) the ones white women were very materially on. Today it is a mainstay of contemporary feminism, and the good fortune of white men educated recently from within it, to be able to think at least twice about the nettlesome business of "speaking for" others. Such a possibility ofcritical self-consciousness is, in part anyway, one of the theoretical locals from whence today's mounting attention to whiteness, white privilege, and white anxiety, comes. Cultural workers are trying to measure collectivities differently today—minorities, majorities, publics, masses—in more precise and nuanced ways. It is (still) undeniably awkward work. Take multiculturalism. Setting aside the apparent goodwill of difference months scheduled by institutions as far-reaching in mass culture as McDonald's and the U.S. Mail, it has become clear that representing other people depends often on interests that exceed those of "the spoken for," and exceed sometimes even the speaker's. The interests at work in these two specific cases are, respectively, profit and the state. Conceptually, and dependinguponwhereandwhoyouare,power within a "first world" capitalist democracy is sometimes forbiddingly complex. Think again about those 80s white feminists—both marginalized and marginalizing, the totality of that arrangementbeing somethingcompletely accountable from the perspective ofneithermargin . Feminists discovered that the margins were numerous and portable around 1981, and that inclusivity and assimilation were not the only political games in town. That hasn't changed. Essentializing the margin is, despite our best intentions, to keep the center very firmly in place. If margins themselves sometimes marginalize and, as was alleged with white feminism, marginality turns up co-conspiring with power, then it would follow that identities perceived as normal, as mainstream, self-possessed, and apolitical, turn out to be so in only the most fragile 6 the minnesota review of ways. Like other white guys in the media lately, I am tempted to attribute the current movement and proliferation of margins to a few decades of unbridled corporate greed and, concomitantly, to the withering of liberalism under the contradictions ofglobal capitalism. Itcan, I think, be said without reservation that the existential moorings of working people across the color line never looked less secure than they do in the age of Benetton economics. This is true—one fears—precisely at the moment categories of race and gender are being ever further detached from the historically and, in this country, notoriously under explored associational possibilities attendant to matters economic. Now, some fifteen years after white feminism heard the relative murmurs of white interrogation, such "associational possibilities" are something thatseem to necessitate the critique ofmajority discourse in its most resilient manifestation. Thus, it has become evident over the last five years (at least in theory) that whiteness can no longer exist invisibly as the silent cultural axiom for locating difference, as the old Left used to say, "below." Whiteness is as sly a constituent of bad faith Mc-Multicultural niche-marketing, as it is more obviously the motor of our current flirtation with "seal the borders" populism. Indeed, the function, status and maintenance of whiteness as something elemental topoweritselfis being queried these dayswith almost ubiquitous scrutiny (historically, psychologically, legally, and as semiotic and analytical processes). I would even identify a "first wave" of work on the topic. This would be work that has effectively taken to task the great Unmarked; has challenged how whiteness chooses (or not) to engage in political questions without being itself the object ofpolitical distinction . Whiteness is assumed now to be a construct. Difference has crossed the ontological tracks, as it were, and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2157-4189
Print ISSN
0026-5667
Pages
pp. 5-8
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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