- Wages for Academic Whiteness:Hispanics and Professionalization
in "whites: made in america: Advancing American Philosophers' Discourse on Race," the Reverend Thandeka claims that the terms "racism" and "white privilege" can't explain what motivated the majority of Donald Trump's voters, since most of them wouldn't identify as racist or privileged. Thandeka rejects Hillary Clinton's description of Trump supporters as "deplorable," a description that fits into a racial narrative that considers whiteness to be an issue of hatred toward blacks. Thandeka believes this narrative fails to account for the shame, insecurity, and fear experienced by whites and perpetrated by "whiteness." She asks us to analyze our racial terms to help create a "new racial discourse on whiteness in America" (Thandeka, "Whites" 27).
Thandeka's Coss Lecture is also an attempt to persuade us that whites are the first "victims" of racism, which she argues at length in her book Learning to Be White. By tracing the history of racist attacks against whites, Thandeka warns us that unless we see whites as victims, we will continue to misunderstand what got Trump elected and what's going on racially in our country. Thandeka's essay is steeped in Schleiermacher: his analysis of the affective realm enables Thandeka to paint whites as insecure, self-hating, sorrowful, disappointed, sad, angry, duped, and lonely. Thandeka challenges us to take emotions seriously, specifically those that white people have been forced to suppress, project, deflect, and sublimate. Thankfully, Schleiermacher says we are capable of artistic creation, which, in this case, might mean thinking creatively about how to talk about race in the United States.
In my comments, I wish to respond to Thandeka's provocations in reverse order: (1) that we take seriously the high, emotional price whites have paid to become white, and (2) that we revise our racial terms to reflect current realities in the United States. The first provocation hits home in a unique way for me, a Latina, teaching Mexican Americans in Deep South Texas. My 90% non-white, non-black, but brown Hispanic students daily renounce [End Page 59] themselves in order to become "American." Like the Jews, Italians, and Irish that Thandeka writes about, my students pay the wages for whiteness, but never earn the wages of it since they never become "white."1
Thandeka's second challenge seems to me squarely pragmatic: if a tool doesn't work, find a better one. I have often encountered situations in the classroom and with colleagues where they immediately reject the terms "institutionalized racism," "internalized hatred," "academic whiteness," and so forth, only to counter with philosophical absurdities like "reverse racism," "black on black violence," or "all lives matter." I've come to see how certain racial terms build walls instead of bridges, so it is worthwhile to reflect on their serviceability. In my conclusion, I suggest that in certain contexts like mine in Deep South Texas, we avoid the term "whiteness," since it is too often misunderstood and gets in the way of progress.
I. Whites as Victims
In both her lecture and her book, Thandeka argues that the creation of whiteness was economically motivated. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, the courts deemed certain people "white" in order to prevent white and black servants from revolting, together, against their masters. Having been granted "whiteness" at the cost of sustained poverty, poor Europeans could at least be proud of something: these newly minted "whites" were not black. Fast-forward to the industrial revolution, poor immigrants could become white if they would only become "racially indoctrinated," which included giving up their identifying ethnic markers and scorning blacks (Thandeka, "Whites" 37). Interpreting the literature on black minstrelsy in the United States, Thandeka concludes that since the only legitimate sorrow was the black person's sorrow, in blackface, the nominally white man or woman could express his or her true feelings: "loss, fear, sorrow, and remorse, feelings of being at risk, and anger and rage at being taken advantage of" (Thandeka, "Whites" 38).
When Thandeka writes about whites-as-victims of whiteness, she means that despite contemporary rhetoric about "white privilege," whites, too, felt the hot flush of shame despite having done...