Callaloo 25.4 (2002) 1272-1278
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The Current Dialogue on Whiteness Studies
The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness. Ed. Birgit Brander Rasmussen, Eric Klinenberg, Irene J. Nexica, and Matt Wray. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2001.
Ware, Vron, and Les Back. Out of Whiteness: Color, Politics, and Culture. London and Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2002.
Both these books make important contributions to the academic field of "critical whiteness studies," which has been developing steadily during the past decade, since the publication of Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark (1992), David Roediger's The Wages of Whiteness (1993), and other works that explore the historical construction of white racial identity in the United States and around the globe. 1 As with any emerging field of inquiry, critical whiteness studies is generating a host of questions that demand to be explored, questions such as: Is whiteness a useful category of analysis? How is it defined? Does its study explain or illuminate racial division and domination, or unwittingly reinforce it? Should whiteness, as a social construct, be abolished? How does whiteness intersect with class and gender to produce social and economic inequality? Obviously, these issues parallel those that have been, and still are being, addressed by scholars of other subfields of race/ethnic studies. The two volumes reviewed here represent a range of theoretical and methodological viewpoints, predominantly from the social sciences, from which to approach these complex and contentious issues; their common ground is a passionate commitment to dismantling white racism and privilege.
The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness, which stems from the "Making and Unmaking of Whiteness" conference held at the University of California at Berkeley in April, 1997, brings together a dozen essays written by eminent scholars, most of them social scientists, as well as by several nonacademics. It opens with Dalton Conley's compelling account of his experiences as a middle-class white child growing up in a predominantly black and Hispanic housing project in the late 1960s. For Conley (who is now a sociologist), white racial identity was not at all "unmarked." As the Other within a community of color, he studied "whiteness the way I would a foreign language" (25). He learned not only the grammar, idioms, and vernacular of that language, but also the "cultural power of whiteness writ large that never needs to speak its name explicitly" (32). He learned also that whereas whites may generally choose their ethnic identity (Irish American, Italian American, etc.), racial identity in the United States is often beyond an individual's control, is socially over-determined. As Conley emphasizes, his personal experience of the often subtle advantages of [End Page 1272] being white serve as a microcosm for the Anglo-European experience as a whole. Certainly Conley's experience of being the marked minority in a predominantly nonwhite culture makes him an anomaly. Yet, despite the widespread notion that whites are oblivious to their whiteness, Conley's self-awareness of his white racial identity is not as rare as one might assume. As Ruth Frankenberg contends in "The Mirage of an Unmarked Whiteness" (72-96), whiteness is clearly visible not only to men and women of color but also to many whites, especially those who feel threatened by nonwhites' challenge to existing racial frameworks. Frankenberg posits a useful eight-point definition of whiteness that, as she notes, makes the supposed normativity and neutrality of whiteness seem absurd.
Critics of whiteness studies have charged that the field will recenter whiteness and deflect attention away from continuing racism against people of color. Frankenberg observes that most researchers on whiteness are in fact challenging the legacy of white racism and connecting their work to the broader antiracist campaign. The essays by her fellow contributors to The Making and Unmaking and of Whiteness support her claim. But John Hartigan Jr.'s "'White Devils' Talk Back: What Antiracists Can Learn from Whites in Detroit" (138-66) will likely increase rather than alleviate the anxiety of opponents of critical whiteness studies. Like Frankenberg, Hartigan rebuts the notion that whiteness is always an unmarked and normative identity, especially...