Whiteness Wail – God of the Machine
Jun 222003

Eddie Thomas has a longish and interesting post up about “Whiteness Studies,” in which he is characteristically more generous and fair-minded than I’m about to be. Eddie is firmly anti, but one of his commentators, Ted Hinchman, makes the best case in their defense:

What exactly is supposed to be wrong with inquiry into the formation and career of the concept of racial whiteness?

It seems obvious that the normative concept of whiteness had and still has as its core function the justification of a species of social prejudice — once the concept is in hand, you can call this ‘racial’ prejudice. Of course, it doesn’t follow that you can’t use the concept in other ways. When you say ‘White folks are sometimes plagued by racial guilt,’ you obviously aren’t justifying racial prejudice. But you’re using a concept that wouldn’t exist were it not for others’ use of it to justify racial prejudice. And it seems obvious that the justificatory use must be what gave the concept currency…

One might teach a course on the history of the concept of gravitational collapse without provoking hue and cry in the blogosphere. Or of the concept of evolution. Or of the concept of time (I don’t mean the rough draft of Sein und Zeit). So why not a course on the history of the concept of whiteness?

Now this is an argument, for good or ill, but try as you might, you just cannot expand an argument into a curriculum. In my day you had to take eight courses in your major; what might those be, for the aspiring Whiteness Studies major? (Rest assured that today’s course will be tomorrow’s department.) You have the two-semester intro on the social construction of everything, the sophomore-year history of slavery course, with special emphasis, naturally, on the United States, a couple of senior seminars on mortgage discrimination and the difficulty of getting a cab — somebody help me out here. There remains post-graduate work, which I can’t even fathom; doubtless this indicates my own insensitivity.

It isn’t much of an argument either. The concept of “whiteness” may have originated in the well-grounded observation that some people have fairer skin than others. It is obvious to Ted Hinchman that “justificatory use must be what gave the concept currency”; it’s far from obvious to me. “Normative,” then, colossally begs the question. If you wish to demonstrate the social construction of race, then you must demonstrate it, not assume it.

Whiteness Studies advocates insist on the one hand that race “is based on a fantasy” and on the other that everything be viewed through the lens of this fantasy. This WaPo story notes that “most [advocates of whiteness studies] are white liberals who hope to dismantle notions of race.” Of course people who really want to “dismantle notions of race” do not invent an academic discipline entirely devoted to such notions. Professor Gregory Jay of the University of Wisconsin encapsulates this cognitive dissonance in a single, convenient web page. He surrounds race with quotation marks, then asks his students, “How long can one watch television or read a newspaper or magazine without encountering anything but white people, or mostly white people?” I’m not sure: how do you tell?

The central premise of Whiteness Studies, and all social construction arguments, is that one’s thought is somehow externally constrained. This is our old friend, the prisoner of consciousness, which has a long and disreputable history. Plato shackles us in the cave, which keeps the Forms forever inaccessible; Kant in our faculties, which distort the true, “noumenal” world; Marx, himself bourgeois to the core, in our “class,” which renders us incapable of seeing that our arguments are mere bourgeois apologetics. Plato, Kant, and Marx granted themselves special get-out-of-jail-free cards, necessarily, to permit them to make such arguments. Such cards, however, are now for sale, like indulgences: whites will be permitted, with the aid of other, more tutored whites, to transcend their white consciousness for a modest tuition fee. Not so modest at Princeton, one of 30 universities that currently offer instruction in Whiteness Studies; but hey, who said enlightenment comes cheap?

  4 Responses to “Whiteness Wail”

  1. My own perpective on university
    courses goes that their prime value
    lies in introducing the possibilities of different languages to the student.The subject of the discourse, is not the major thing.
    naturlich, the idea of courses in whiteness conjures up visions of jargon-ridden arseholes, strutting their opinionated language out on some academic stage.
    But if, as I do, you want to get people involved in some basic questions, maqybe its a case of any port in a storm.
    I leave aside the put-downs you seem to be making of Goffman, but surely the central question is a linguistic, rather than a philosophic

  2. question. Namely is thought predicated on language.I t ake that as a necessary predicate to a discussion. Or ( as an only partially reconstructed Whorfian) am I off the point?

  3. Aleph: Any port in a storm, sure, but some are more hospitable than others. You’re a lot more blithe about abstracting away from subject matter in educational curricula than I am. As I grow older my confidence in method wanes and I place more trust in learning actual stuff. Whiteness Studies looks like it will produce a lot more navel-gazing and guilt-tripping than useful discourse.

    Is thought predicated on language? Not in the sense you mean, I don’t think. Language makes thought possible, but the concept is father to the word, not the other way around.

    And hey, I like Goffman. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life is a perceptive book. If Goffman were still around to write on whiteness, I would read him.

  4. aaron,
    thanks for responding to na relatively incoherent post,(prose is deeply not my metier).
    But, –
    (1) thought and language are so intimately intertwined that I`d only go as far as to talk about language as the first sexuality of thought,and then have third thoughts,
    (2)I`d like to think that ideallly a university course involvesthe participant in alanguage, which hopefully incorporates some form of appreciation of a meta-dialogue, so that at some time, maybe years later, the student puts their own
    language into perspective.
    (3)Agr3eed, anyone who takes a course with that title, is most probably not a suitable case for treatment.
    (4)Yeah, I love Goffman too, but,(reversing myself)he`s one of the sob`s that make this kind of course title possible.

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