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Scott Michaelsen What's "White/' and Whither? (on Fred Pfeil, White Guys: Studies in Postmodern Domination and Difference [New York: Verso, 1995]; and Ian F. Haney López, White By Law: The Legal Construction ofRace [New York: New York UP, 1996]) I begin with two brief anecdotes, one historical and one personal. Thehistorical tale is also a cautionary one, I think: in December 1942, at the age of eighty-five, that most prominent powerbroker for U.S. anthropological studies, Franz Boas, stood up to address a luncheon audience . He began: "I have a new theory about race..." and never completed his sentence. As George W. Stocking, Jr. reports, Boas promptly "fell over dead" (110). The second anecdote concerns my own, recent divorce in an El Paso, Texas courtroom. As I waited to see thejudge—who simply had to sign off on my uncontested settlement—I was asked to fill out a brief court form that catalogued my date and place of birth, address, and a few other things. As Irapidlyfilled in theblanks, one line on theformcaught my attention. "Race or Color?" it queried, followed by a blank space. Deep into writing an article on the contours of whiteness in the nineteenth century, I was struck by the formulation. It seemed to consolidate certain developments in recent business and state survey work, where, frequently, one is asked to identify one's "race" from a list of possibilities that includes nineteenth-century racial categories, masquerading as culture ("African-American" or "Afro-American"), as well as the terms "white" (a centuries-old term of color distinction substituting for the racist construct "Caucasian"), and "Hispanic" (where a European -ethnic category is grafted onto the list—a dangerous supplement that threatens the stability of a closed racial analytic). The court's interest in race or color, and the open space permitted for one's own formulation of an answer, threatens to conflate but not amalgamate several sorts ofmatters. One can imagine the sheer strangeness of a statistician's report on court business, which might include figures for those answering Mexican-American, white, bronze, Asian, Chicano, black, African-American, brown, greenish-yellow, Caucasian, Mexican, and so forth. Let this imaginary report and its Borgesian logic serve as a kind of metaphor for the problems that exist at the moment in a rapidly emerging field that concerns the study of "whiteness." The word turns up with increasing frequency in historical/cultural studies titles, but just what is "whiteness," (and "white," "the white race," "whitening," etc.)? What precisely is being studied in these texts? Frankly, it is everything 74the minnesota review and nothing, and this is partly a problem of our lack of a genealogy, much less competing genealogies, for the very word "white." Most of the literature on whiteness produced in the last few years tells us almost nothing explicitly about whiteness as an analytical category, and seems to make two unspoken assumptions that are historically insupportable : first, "white" means "race," and, second, "race" means the scientific racism of the nineteenth century, with its attendant bloodbased , polygenist speculations upon the mysteries of the body's interior . In other words, "white" equals "Caucasian." But the discourse of whiteness historically precedes that of race. Whiteness, in the early history of colonialism, is in fact a separate analytic , and not necessarily articulated with other contemporaneous discourses ofdistinction, such as thoseofreligion or civilization. (Alejandro Lugo's forthcoming work intriguingly argues that "whiteness" for precontact America was a matter of face-paint ceremonies, and that sixteenth century Amerindian texts concerning the conquest and the "whiteness" of the Spaniards must be read according to an entirely different logic.) Jack D. Forbes' Africans and Native Americans, which studies multiple colonial languages of color and their contingent connections to other ways of thinking the "other," is perhaps the most careful work we currently have on the subject. He summarizes: [W]e have a sequence in which first the Europeans began with very general color terms (loro, pardo, baço, etc.); second, when they coined many more color terms (membrillo coádo, moreno, etc.); thirdly, when they invented or adopted terms for various mixed-bloods as mixed-bloods (mamaluco, mestizo, mulato, zambo, etc.); fourth, when they...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2157-4189
Print ISSN
0026-5667
Pages
pp. 73-80
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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