- Critical Race Theory and Questioning WhitenessYoung Feminists Speak Out Against Race and Class Privilege
In 1996 I wrote that theories of oppression lack a systematic, self-reflexive component, which, if it existed, might lead those with race privilege to deconstruct their own role in the process of oppression. An integral part of this problematic is the lack of discourse about race privilege within the white population, which would allow its beneficiaries to articulate “how they feel about, think about, react to, make sense of, come to terms with, maintain privilege over, and ultimately renounce the privilege to oppress.”1 Similarly, Toni Morrison contends that the focus of most intellectual work has been on a “pattern of thinking about racialism in terms of its consequences on the victim. . . . A good deal of time and intelligence has been invested in the exposure of racism and the horrific results on its objects. . . . The scholarship that looks into the mind, imagination, and behavior of slaves is valuable. But equally valuable is a serious intellectual effort to see what racial ideology does to the mind, imagination, and behavior of masters.”2 I heed Morrison’s call to examine whiteness with the same rigor and depth as that directed at the racialized others. I do so by analyzing fifty qualitative interviews with white undergraduates who identify as feminists to see if they acknowledge the privileges that race and class have bestowed on their lives. The consistent findings in whiteness studies have indicated that most whites co-construct race privilege through the conspiratorial practices of silence. As Bridget Byrne indicates, “silent avoidance of matters associated with whiteness helps keep the majority position in place; whiteness is co-produced with silence through avoidance in concrete everyday situations.”3
I begin this investigation with a review of the early studies on whiteness, followed by an analysis of race privilege, which has been further articulated since the introduction of intersectionality. For my 1996 book The Color of Privilege, I wrote “The Trickster’s Treaty: A Play of Power” to examine whiteness utilizing the critical race theory method. For this analysis, “The Trickster’s Treaty: A Play of Power” provides a fruitful avenue for understanding [End Page 90] how young white feminists’ challenge their own inherited race and class privileges. I conclude with the question of whether the articulated challenge of white race and class privileges will ultimately lead white feminists to take concrete actions toward dismantling white supremacy.
Early Studies on Whiteness
When the area of whiteness studies was introduced in the late 1980s, the early studies articulated how whiteness is experienced, lived, and questioned. The consistent finding in many of these studies was the nonconscious nature of race privilege.4 White participants were unable to articulate fully the nature of “whiteness” because for them being white was simply “normal” and how they “just lived.” Whiteness acquired vividness only when it was threatened by the presence of people of Color or when race privileges were at risk because people of Color competed for their benefits.5 Furthermore, whiteness could only be articulated in comparison to people of Color—whiteness was the state of not being Black, brown, Asian, or any other non-white group.6 White privilege only existed in relationship to the oppression of people of Color.7
Studies on whiteness also needed to challenge the established methodologies for studying “race” since race had never before included “white” as an object of study.8 The study of race traditionally entailed making inquiries into the subjectivities of the oppressed.9 As a consequence, the developed methodologies facilitated the voicing of previously silenced subjects. The scholarship on race became a powerful tool to delineate how the oppressed felt and experienced their oppression. Similarly, when feminist methodologies were applied to the study of race privilege among white women, feminist logic was turned on its head: instead of providing an avenue for voicing views on gender oppression, many times the application of these methodologies exposed white women’s nonconscious racist assumptions about people of Color.10 Therefore an inherent drawback in most traditional methodologies used to study race was the researcher’s potential role as co-conspirator...