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  • Whiteness and the General WillDiversity Work as Willful Work
  • Sara Ahmed

In this essay I explore whiteness in relation to the general will. My starting point is that the idea of “the general will” offers us a vocabulary for thinking through the materiality of race. In his keynote address to the 40th Annual Philosophy Symposium in 2010, Charles Mills argues that race is material: it becomes part of the living human body. Mills draws on recent theories of whiteness as habit, including the work of Linda Alcoff (2006) and Shannon Sullivan (2006). Quoting from Sullivan, he suggests that whiteness is in “the nose that smells, the back, neck and other muscles that imperceptibly tighten with anxiety, and the eyes that see some but not all physical differences as significant” (Sullivan 2006, 188). Whiteness is embodied; it is in bodily matter as well as affecting how bodies matter. Mills then suggests that the materiality of whiteness is its “resistance to will.” One definition of materiality could be this: resistance to will.

This essay takes up the theme of the materiality of race by thinking of whiteness in relation to the will. There are clearly risks in such an undertaking: after all, the idea of whiteness as willed might seem to imply that whiteness is volitional: and can be simply “willed away.”1 I want to suggest that if whiteness is resistant to will, as that which cannot be simply willed away, then whiteness can also be understood as willed: in other words, what cannot be willed away is a willing way. Edward Said’s definition of Orientalism as “willed human work,” which as a definition has yet to be rigorously understood, could be considered an important precedent to my argument (1978, 140). The suggestion is not [End Page 1] simply that the Orient is brought into existence, or made to exist over time, but that the very labor of creating the Orient, the land of the stranger, the land far away, is what establishes a direction. Once the Orient has come to exist, there is a willing of its existence; to keep going that way is to keep that way going. Willed work is work that in willing that way creates a way that can be willed. It is not as the old English cliché says—where there’s a will there’s a way—but rather to will is to way. I think it is useful to think of whiteness in this way, as a willing way, which is of course only one way of thinking about whiteness.

I pose the generality of the will as a way of reflecting on “institutional whiteness.” Whiteness becomes “the material” of an institutional body, whether that body is the nation, an organization, a neighborhood, or a street. We can consider an institution as a body with parts: it too has noses, mouths, muscles that register anxiety, as well as ears and eyes. Just think of how Neighborhood Watch, as a national or even global technology, uses the injunction that citizens should become the “eyes and ears of the police.” A good citizen is the one who accepts this injunction: the one who is willing to watch out for strangers, those who are loitering, who seem suspicious, or out of place. Institutions have “detection systems”: they have parts that register the approach of strangers. A collective body in registering those who are out of place, both creates strangers and establishes a direction toward them, as those who threaten the place of the “in place,” as those who generate anxiety.

A key event in my own life was of becoming a stranger in a white neighborhood in Adelaide, Australia, in a place I called home. I was fourteen years old. I was stopped by two policemen in a car who asked me, “Are you Aboriginal?” It turned out that there had been some burglaries in the area. It was an extremely hostile address, and it was an unsettling experience at the time. It was an experience of being made into a stranger, the one who is recognized as “out of place,” as the one who does not belong, whose proximity is registered...


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