Part Five: Whiteness Studies – In Conclusion
In this final section, the academic discipline of ‘whiteness studies’ will be explored, looking at what purpose this discipline can serve and to whose ends, and what its benefits and limitations might be. This section also draws together the previous parts in a conclusion.
The study of whiteness has reflected an emergent trend in academia in the UK and the US since the 1990s, springing up in university courses, journals and published works, as well as within popular culture. It is multidisciplinary, situated within sociology, social geography, critical race theory, postcolonial studies, and women’s studies. For example, much of the material for these essays came from a module entitled ‘Culture, Community, Identity’ on a postgraduate degree at Birkbeck, University of London called Cultures, Diasporas and Ethnicities.
The focus of whiteness studies seeks to rework racial categories, hierarchies and boundaries; challenge historical and contemporary accounts of white identity construction; and critique institutional and state practices and discourses that serve to maintain white privilege. Contemporary accounts reject whiteness as unconditional, universal and equally experienced by all whites, repositioning white identities within shifting racial boundaries. A necessary development and an accepted focus of research in the study of race relations, whiteness studies have been utilised to empirically and theoretically develop the race relations paradigm from a focus on racialized ‘others’ to redirect the scholarly gaze back to whiteness as an identity, ideology and social position. Its stated aims are to eliminate racism, delegitimise unearned white privilege, and demand white people accept their complicity in the racialised order, and there have been conceptual and political gains in re-centring whiteness and interrogating this centre of power and privilege. For example, given that whiteness is a historically contingent and politically manipulated construct, this suggests it can undergo further transformation.
However, labelling a discipline as ‘critical’ does not necessarily entail critical effects, and the emergence of white studies as an aspect of racial and ethnic studies has political implications in itself. Although early theorists focused on whiteness to unravel its normative position, fears have surfaced that it re-centres whiteness whilst simultaneously trying to demolish it, facing a similar issue to postcolonial studies in that its existence serves to uphold the same concept it seeks to dismantle. It is argued that because whiteness only exists in relation to non-whiteness, it is a racist concept in itself. Although attempts to analyse whiteness may be benevolent, the emergence of white studies could be used to bolster white nationalism and neo-fascism and in a restoration of white pride, particularly in the US context. Although there is the inevitable risk of white studies being co-opted by white supremacists, if its existence increases the number of whites willing to do the work to acknowledge their own privilege, fragility and complicity then it seems a necessary one to forward the conversation about how to eliminate the dominance of whiteness and to dismantle racism. Given the power of education to ignite social change, the addition of whiteness studies to national curriculums could prove immeasurable if done correctly.
These essays have examined why the study of whiteness is important, through an analysis of the myriad facets of whiteness as a racial, political and social category.
Whiteness reproduces itself and white privilege through its own invisibility and naming it as such is critical for its dismantling. The source of its representational power is its ability to reproduce itself as the definition of normal rather than a social, cultural and historical construction achieved through racial domination. It is an unstable category which is historically contingent and politically manipulated, which is paradoxically strengthened by its own instabilities. Western elites have the power to include or exclude specific groups based on their political usefulness, in such a way that some groups benefit from their whiteness in certain contexts whereas other groups are denied this privilege. Initial attempts to inculcate all white groups during the colonial period have given way to new intra-ethnic distinctions, which exclude specific European groups, i.e. Eastern Europeans. This indicates the provisional and contingent aspects of whiteness in the contemporary era.
The British white working class were enabled to adopt whiteness to serve political ends in a repositioning of race in opposition to class to forge a xenophobic and non-inclusive white British national identity. Whiteness remains a contested category, neither static nor uniform, but historically contingent, class specific and politically manipulated, continuously redefined and reinvented for specific political ends.
The term white fragility can be useful to explain some white people’s refusal to see themselves as complicit in the contemporary racial order, and how discourses around segregation, universalism and individualism serve to reinforce white privilege and obscure the structural basis of racism. The development of racial literacy and corrective socialisation through education can help develop national antiracism projects that serve this purpose. In the British context, creating solidarity amongst whites and non-whites, particularly in what is clearly a multiracial working class, can contribute to dismantling the racial structure of oppression and redivert energy into fighting the elites, for whom racial divisions actually serve. Whiteness can however be potentially rehabilitated and enacted strategically to generate new forms of white antiracism, and whiteness studies is making some gains in doing so.
It is for these reasons that the study of whiteness in an important and necessary development within the study of race and racism.
Suggestions for further reading:
- Sveinsson, K. (2009) Who Cares About the White Working Class? The Runnymede Trust
- Dyer, R. (1997) White. Routledge
- Rattansi, A. (2011) Multiculturalism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press
- Ahmed, S. (2002) ‘Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism’ in Borderlands e-journal 3 (2) http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol3no2_2004/ahmed_declarations.htm
- O. and Shaheen, F. (eds) Minority Report: Race and Class in Post-Brexit Britain. London: The Runnymede Trust
- Bonnett, A. (2000) White Identities: Historical and International Perspectives. Essex: Pearson Education Limited
- DiAngelo, R. (2011) ‘White Fragility’ in International Journal of Pedagogy, vol 3 (3) 54-70
- DiAngelo, R. (2012) ‘What Makes Racism So Hard for Whites to See?’ in Counterpoints, 398 167-189
- Frankenberg, R. (1993) The Social Construction of Whiteness: White Women, Race Matters. University of Minnesota Press
- Gilroy, P. (2005) Postcolonial Melancholia. Columbia University Press
- Winddance Twine, F. (2010) A White Side of Black Britain: Interracial Intimacy and Racial Literacy. Duke University Press