PRINT May 1998


whiteness studies

IT’S REMARKABLE HOW MUCH we express our political lives in the language of color—conservatives with blue, radicals with red, queers with pink, liberals with lilac; Indian Congress Party patriots de rigueur in white, African Nationalists in black, red, and green, avant-garde apparatchiks, unfortunately like fascists, in black. The lesson of this political palette may indeed go beyond flags and festoons. In the visual display of colors lie those “shades of opinion” that modern democratic societies see as their saving grace. But there is something even more significant about the association of color with the body politic—something undoubtedly medieval and scholastic, going back to the color-coded habits of monks and friars, the parti-colored standards of guilds and princes, and other fusty forms of life. To wear your politics on (the color of) your sleeves is, come to think of it, a way of talking about the vested interests of political power—a mode of “subjection” that might be dubbed, à la Foucault, bio-politics. To say that you identify yourself with a color, to have your political affiliation read off the color of your drapes, is a less po-faced response to what foucauldians might describe as the “disciplinary” mechanisms of modern society: the body turns into the site of power and knowledge, the eye or the gaze operates its own sovereign surveillance.

One of Foucault’s most enduring arguments is that the place of power is always somehow invisible, a tyranny of the transparent. Recent work on the experience of “whiteness”—a burgeoning topic in cultural studies—makes the foucauldian line practically axiomatic. The critique of whiteness, whether from literary studies, labor history, autobiography, or sociology, attempts to displace the normativity of the white position by seeing it as a strategy of authority rather than an authentic or essential “identity.” Since “whiteness” naturalizes the claim to social power and epistemological privilege, displacing its position cannot be achieved by raising the “gaze of the other” or by provoking the “return” of the repressed or the oppressed. The subversive move is to reveal within the very integuments of “whiteness” the agonistic elements that make it the unsettled, disturbed form of authority that it is—the incommensurable “differences” that it must surmount; the histories of trauma and terror that it must perpetrate and from which it must protect itself; the amnesia it imposes on itself; the violence it inflicts in the process of becoming a transparent and transcendent force of authority. It is this peculiar ambivalence or doubleness as a mode of critique that informed Toni Morrison’s pioneering essay “Playing in the Dark” and continues to inspire the best writing on whiteness, such as David Roediger’s remarkable anthology Black on White, in which black writers explore the meaning of “whiteness,” and Ruth Frankenberg’s excellent collection of essays, Displacing Whiteness. Frankenberg speaks collectively for the more complex and searching contributions to the discussion when she writes, “The story of race is not a simple story of black and white, but rather one of more complex, intermeshing dyads crafted through nationally structured processes of history (in this collection instantiated as black-white, brown-white, African-European, Mexican-Chicano, Chicano-Anglo, Indian-British).” Whiteness is, after all, only a paler shade of gray, or blackness hit by the glare of light.

These hyphenated, hybridized cultural conditions are also forms of a vernacular cosmopolitanism that emerges in multicultural societies and explicitly exceeds a particular national location. The nonbinary engagements of cultural difference and distance often lead to narratives that turn to autobiography and anecdote to tell the story of what it means to live through the mediations of whiteness, mediations that can be both mendacious and magical. The spring issue of the journal Transition, “White Skin, White Masks,” contains a rich array of such intimate recollections: Hilton Als follows the threads of William S. Burroughs’ Hasidic “overcoat” and his pale imitation of “gentlemanly Negro style” in order to return to the familiar knot of his father’s “marriage of Negro and Jewish style ... as he scours the city in search of sadness and moral rectitude.” bell hooks allows the reader access to her own struggle with Leni Riefensthal. “Ethnic hash” is Patricia Williams’ extended dietary metaphor for the cultural diversity of her extended family, Black, Cherokee, Scottish, French-Canadian; “Jiggers” is Joe Wood’s word for the “blackface” Japanese who stay real cool once they get under the ultraviolet rays of the tanning booth.

The place of the “minority”—red, green, black, white, pink, wigger, jigger, nigger—in the imbroglio of the culture wars and the lingo of cultural studies is illuminated by Foucault’s insistence that modern power emerges from, and operates within, “local conditions and particular needs” rather than the instrumental or “universal” rationalities of identifiable groups. Listen to the hybrid keywords—the gendered body, the “raced” gaze, queer nation, diasporic “desire”—and you can hear Foucault’s argument that these ensembles don’t “have the effect of homogenizing these different instances but of establishing connections, cross-references, complementaries and demarcations between them which assume that each instance retains to some extent its own special modalities.”

One effect of “poststructuralist” theory on the politics of multiculturalism—often wrongly identified with the zeitgeist of a fuzzy “postmodernism”—has been to deprive “class” of the primacy it usually enjoys in progressive social critiques: the heterodox nature of “cross-references, complementaries and demarcations” form a piecemeal social imaginary “prior to any class strategy designed to weld them into vast coherent ensembles,” in Foucault’s words. With class division only one among a range of social forces and cultural differences, the “idea” of the nation-state as the primary site of political action—for or against the state—loses its compelling reality. Micro-societies, often called “communities of interest,” resist the encompassing embrace of the nation-state; minority groups increasingly consider their theater of engagement to be the “liberal” academy (despite its elitist and protectionist qualities) or agencies of transnational cosmopolitanism, such as international political and research affiliates. It is this turn away from the centrality of the nation that often leaves “the politics of difference” open to the claim that it is an “unpatriotic” practice, its minorities no more than foreign agents on native soil.

In The Dark Side of the Academic Left, his recent salvo against the cosmopolitan cultural left, Richard Rorty reflects on “the partial substitution of Freud for Marx” in the thinking of progressive intellectuals. He discusses the effects of shifting the radical conversation from a focus on the deep divisions of “selfishness”—unemployment, educational deprivation, the diminution in health and housing provision—to the ravages of “sadism”: “This cultural left thinks more about stigma than about money, more about deep and hidden psychosexual motivations than about shallow and evident greed.” While readily conceding that the cultural left—mobilized by “what they call the ”‘politics of difference’ or ‘of identity’ or ‘of recognition’“—has made America a more civilized nation with regard to race, gender, and gay issues, Rorty deplores the fact that it is ”unable to engage in national politics,“ choosing instead to dwell on the effects of globalization, ”more interested in the workers of the developing world than in the fate of our fellow citizens.“ Rorty suggests that, by contrast, the left must ”try to mobilize what remains of our pride in being Americans."

There is of course a thin gray line between a “national” conversation on the question of trade unions, the need for civic pride and social wellbeing, and so on and one that tips over into familiar “old” left habits of mind: the reduction of the cultural public sphere to the realm of economic determinism; the support of trade unions at the expense of raced and gendered workers whose “differences” and discriminations become subordinated to class interest; the homophobia and xenophobia that so easily perverts patriotism. To resuscitate the national prerogative in opposition to the global cosmopolitical perspective runs the risk of constituting, faute de mieux, the kind of discourse that pits foreign workers against “ours,” in a situation where many of “their” workers are, indeed, our migrant workers, our Gastarbeiter, whose labor is productive enough but whose presence can’t somehow make the cut of full citizenship. Such “us-and-them–ism” fails to confront the realities of an expanding global capitalism that respects no time zones as it rushes toward a post-fordist future of flexible accumulation, transnational consumption, and unregulated, exploitative “free” labor markets.

The blizzard of “whiteness” studies cannot be adequately understood without being situated in the precarious balance between old left and cultural left, between the national and the cosmopolitan, selfishness and sadism. Like the color itself, “whiteness” is a screen for projecting the political phantoms of the past on the unfulfilled surfaces of the present; but at the same time it resembles what house painters call a primer, a base color that regulates all others, a norm that spectacularly or stealthily underlies powerful social values. In raising issues of class, poverty, “white trash,” resource allocation, institutional privilege, and the symbolic capital that goes with skin color and its accoutrements, whiteness critique attempts to align the majoritarian perspective with the discourse of cultural difference that represents the minority point of view. As such, it has the potential, at least, to initiate a national conversation whose political itinerary would be recognized by what is left of the old American left.

One wing of the new critique of whiteness—the abolitionist tendency represented by Noel Ignatiev’s journal Race Traitor—seeks to negate the symbolic status of “whiteness” as privilege, wherever it attaches institutionally or intuitively to forms of personhood or the “transparent” norms associated with white patriarchy and paternalism. Abolitionism, according to Ignatiev, brings attention to bear on the life world of the downtrodden—bankrupt schools, failing labor unions, racist police-forces, unjust laws. Rather than deliver the underclass into the protective arms of the state in the form of liberal handouts, the abolitionists seek to disrupt the smooth functioning of state institutions to enable those who may be white but are really “enemies of the official society” to confront their false consciousness, to become “free” of their race. If nothing else, such vanguardism would certainly go some way toward restoring an argument centered on the nation: “There is no such thing as white culture,” Ignatiev writes in Transition. “Shakespeare was not white; he was English. Mozart was not white; he was Austrian.”

But what’s in a name, especially if whiteness can so easily be replaced by the name of the nation and the category of national belonging? Indeed, once abolished, could whiteness not continue its “nationalist” career under the guise of “civility,” “secularism,” “tolerance,” or even the “national culture”—terms that have as often been used to draw peoples into the human community as to exclude them as “other”? The norms of “anglo-centric” cultural and political judgment provide access to the “good life” in ways that are, undoubtedly, discriminatory and unethical. But the rhetoric of transformation that accompanies the good fight against whiteness begins at times to take on the authoritarian or apocalyptic tone of the national state that is so often the mouthpiece of what is being battled: “To escape this plight, so-called whites must cease to exist as whites. To put it another way, they must commit suicide as whites to come alive as workers or youth or women or artists or whatever other identity will let them stop being the miserable, petulant, subordinated creatures they now are and become freely associated, developing human beings” (Ignatiev).

These issues Ignatiev raises courageously dramatize the need to abolish white privilege, both in the sphere of public accountability and in the more intimate recesses of soul and psyche. However, the stentorian tone of soul-searching, accompanied by its rhetorical rectitude, comes uncomfortably close, for me at least, to the way in which “nationalist” discourses of the state frequently address the people or the troops as a homogenous mass waiting to be mobilized. Such a disciplinary political program makes it impossible to exert one’s right to make a nuanced response, to suggest a variation in terms or tone. One is obliged, more or less, to act or answer passively, in the affirmative.

Is there a right “tone” for such a national conversation? This is as much a historical as a rhetorical or ethical issue. The ravages of racial division in the United States, the de facto segregation of populations who are more or less yoked together by the demography and demagoguery of “democracy,” turns Black and White into stark alternatives. In this silhouette of desperate subjects, laid out in two dimensions, there is a need for a breath of new life: I have rarely seen this hope better realized than in the words of Toni Morrison:

In matters of race and gender, it is now possible and necessary, as it seemed never to have been before, to speak about these matters without the barriers, the silences, the embarrassing gaps in discourse. It is clear to the most reductionist intellect that black people think differently from one another; it is also clear that the time for undiscriminating racial unity has passed. A conversation, a serious exchange, between black men and women, has begun in a new arena and the contestants defy the mold. Nor is it as easy to be split along racial lines, as the alliances and coalitions between white and black women, and the conflicts among black women, and black men . . . prove.

What we need is a way of looking that restores a third dimension to hard-set profiles; a way of writing that makes black and white come alive in a shared text; a way of talking, of moving back and forth along the tongue, to bring language to a space of community and conversation that is never simply white and never singly black.

Homi K. Bhabha is Chester D. Tripp Chair in the Humanities at the University of Chicago and Visiting Professor at the University of London. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.

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