Ten years ago there were no such courses. Now “whiteness studies” is being taught at over 30 American campuses. In Australia too there are academics teaching this subject; in 2003 they formed their own whiteness studies association.
So what is it? In short, it’s a field of studies based on the theory that whites invented the idea of biological race in order to oppress indigenous peoples and to benefit from unearned privileges.
An Australian whiteness theorist, Damien Riggs, has summarized the new field of studies as follows:
Whiteness is seen as a thoroughly racialised project that aims to legitimate the authority of certain groups over others by drawing on a legacy of ‘biological’ explanations of race … Whilst this approach starts from an understanding of race as a social construction, it also acknowledges the very concrete ways in which race shapes experiences of oppression and privilege.
What is the effect of these studies on white students? One young Australian woman, Veronica Coen, tells us that her whiteness studies course led her,
to recognise that my privilege as an educated middle-class white woman was directly attributed to my ancestor’s theft of indigenous land and their exploitation
took a frightening journey into Australia’s violent history … The path was at times very distressing. My study journal was often wrinkled with tears.
Nado Aveling, who teaches whiteness studies to student teachers at Perth’s Murdoch University (it’s a mandatory part of the course) tells us of the students’ reactions that:
responses are often strongly emotional, and resistance, misunderstanding, frustration, anger and feelings of inefficacy may be the outcomes.
A social construct?
So whiteness studies confronts students with the claim that their identity is a false social construct, built around the oppression of Aborigines, and that the lives they lead are built unjustly on unearned privilege.
It’s a significant claim to make, but not one which is intellectually coherent. Even its starting point makes little sense.
Damien Riggs tells us that his approach “starts from an understanding of race as a social construction” and that we should reject “the legacy of ‘biological’ explanations of race”.
So we are meant to accept the idea that a “white race” exists not as a biological fact, but as a social construct – as something simply made up by society for its own purposes.
Why would someone make this claim, when it contradicts the visible evidence of a biologically existing white race? The answer has to do with certain intellectual assumptions existing within liberal modernism.
Liberal modernism asserts that to be fully human we must be autonomous in the sense that we are able to determine for ourselves who we are to be. Therefore, liberal modernists don’t like to recognise the existence of a “biological destiny” in which we are influenced in our identity by our sex or our race (or by other inherited or traditional qualities which we don’t choose for ourselves).
Liberal modernists therefore often prefer to believe that qualities like race are oppressive social constructs whose real existence can either be denied or made not to matter.
Riggs is therefore following a modernist ideology in claiming that race is a social construct. However, even in ideological terms, this claim is incoherent.
Why? One reason is that whiteness theorists don’t simply want to declare race null and void. They want to pin down whites as guilty oppressors. Therefore, they are concerned to emphasise the idea of “whiteness” as a racial category at the same time as they deny the real existence of a white race.
To make this clear, whiteness theorists are strongly opposed to the idea of whites being race blind. They want to make whites more conscious of their “racialised” existence, whilst still claiming that there is no such thing as a really existing white race.
It’s a difficult distinction to hold and Damien Riggs himself warns that,
It is important to recognise that in talking about race we run the risk of reifying race as a ‘real entity’
Similarly, whiteness theorists dismiss the idea of really existing races and yet they recognise Aborigines as a real entity, even to the extent of claiming that Aborigines are sovereign over other groups (Riggs states that “indigenous sovereignty is the ground on which we stand”).
Then there is the issue of “complicity”. Whiteness theorists don’t want to allow any escape routes by which whites can escape the guilt of their unearned privileges. Robinder Kaur, a whiteness theorist at York University has explained that for whites,
“there is no 'safe space', no haven of guiltlessness to retreat to.”
Therefore, whiteness theorists emphasise the idea of “complicity”: that all whites, even the whiteness theorists themselves, are complicit in white guilt. It is made clear that you are still complicit, even if you renounce all privilege, or choose to identify with Aborigines, or dedicate your life to anti-racist causes. You remain a guilty white.
This may serve a useful purpose within whiteness theory. However, it adds to the intellectual incoherence of whiteness studies. After all, the original purpose of liberal moderns declaring race to be a social construct was to allow individuals to autonomously choose their own multiple, fluid identities. Now, though, we have whiteness theorists, as liberal moderns, talking about whiteness as the most absolute, fixed and inescapable of racialised categories.
Whiteness theorists simply haven’t thought through such implications; they haven’t made a good enough effort to formulate a consistent ideology.
Whiteness studies claims that all whites enjoy unearned privilege at the expense of indigenous peoples. How, though, is this claim justified?
Veronica Coen, the student I quoted above, thinks that white Australians benefited from Aboriginal labour in colonial times. This seems an unlikely explanation for the prosperity of modern Australia. Though Aboriginal labour was important in some areas of Australia, its economic importance overall must have been small compared even to white convict labour let alone to that of free settlers.
Even the claim that whites are privileged from having taken Aboriginal land has its problems. The prominent Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson has pointed out that Aborigines who were never dispossessed of their land experience similar problems to those who were:
the problems are pretty similar between communities that have never been dispossessed of their land – like in the western Cape York peninsula – and those that had been positively uprooted. It wasn’t about poverty, and it wasn’t about land, and it wasn’t about the degree of trauma experienced in history.
Pearson blames the dysfunction in Aboriginal communities not on whites having taken wealth from them, but rather on having given it to them in a misguided transfer of welfare money. He remembers a more intact community in the time before such transfers:
Everybody in Hope Vale of my generation or older grew up in a family, or household, where parents worked hard, the kids were looked after. They were bequeathed a real privilege.
Pearson is exactly right to identify these social norms as being a real privilege. It’s much easier to prosper when you are surrounded by people with a strong family and work ethic. Whites who aren’t exposed to this ethic in their homes or communities tend to experience the same loss of living standard as non-whites do.
There is one other way in which whiteness theorists have tried to explain white privilege. According to Peggy McIntosh, an American writer, she experiences a daily privilege as a white person on the following grounds:
- I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
- I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my own race widely represented.
- I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions
- I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my own race.
- I can easily buy posters, post-cards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my own race.
One way to criticise this approach is to point out that American blacks, who Peggy McIntosh is taking to be the oppressed group, don’t really have that much trouble finding their own areas to live in, or their own music, or food they like, or films and posters in which they feature.
The more important criticism, though, is once again a lack of coherence. White Americans are told endlessly that diversity is a blessing which will enrich their lives. Peggy McIntosh, though, is basing her case that whites are privileged on the idea that whites can more easily escape the effects of diversity than blacks.
In other words, to accept Peggy McIntosh’s argument requires us to believe that it is oppressive to live in diverse areas in which we are no longer the majority race. If this is the case, though, why would white Americans choose to accept diversity, if the consequences are really so undesirable?
In fact, the logical consequences of Peggy McIntosh’s argument go much further than this. If I lived in a country with a million white people, but not a single non-white, then I would not be privileged and I would not need to feel guilt about my existence. However, if a single non-white was allowed to live in my country, then I would be privileged in comparison to them, I would breach the morality of modern equality, and my identity would be called into question.
It seems to me that Peggy McIntosh needs to reconsider her intellectual assumptions as they lead her to political absurdities.
What else is wrong with whiteness studies? Remember Robinder Kaur? She was the Sikh woman I quoted above who told whites that there was no escape from their guilt.
As it happens, Robinder Kaur is an editor for a magazine called Kaurs. This magazine celebrates the identity of Sikh women as follows:
The magazine will encourage the Sikh woman to rediscover herself in the light of the glorious heritage and current meritorious achievements of the Sikh community.
And how does the magazine think that the Sikh community has prospered? The editor thinks that life is full of challenges, which leads to this advice:
... how to overcome these challenges and emerge as a winner? Hard work, confidence, dedication and, of course, the blessings of the Almighty are a sure recipe for success.
So we have here a clear double standard. For Robinder Kaur her own identity as a Sikh woman is a positive thing, and Sikhs are to think of their past as a “glorious heritage”. If Sikhs have done well it is due to hard work, confidence and dedication. For whites, though, there is only guilt. Our past is to be regarded negatively as a history of oppression of others, and our prosperity is unearned.
Obviously I don’t think whites should lamely accept such a double standard. It’s natural for Robinder Kaur to think of her own ethnic identity in positive terms, and we should follow her lead in regarding our own identity a similarly positive way. What kind of life would it be if we accepted the double standard in which our role, unlike others, was one of inescapable guilt? How could a psychologically healthy life be built on the assumptions of whiteness studies?
There’s one final issue to deal with. Whiteness theorists would regard themselves as being cutting edge anti-racists. Yet, in one further act of incoherence, it is they who are peddling a dangerous racism.
Whiteness theorists are creating a picture of whites as a “cosmic enemy”: as a force in the world standing in the way of justice and equality. Groups who are regarded this way shouldn’t be surprised to find themselves targeted for removal. Here, for instance, is the “solution” of Dr Noel Ignatiev, a Harvard academic and whiteness theorist, to the “problem” of whites:
The key to solving the social problems of our age is to abolish the white race.
... The goal of abolishing the white race is on its face so desirable that some may find it hard to believe that it could incur any opposition.
... we intend to keep bashing the dead white males, and the live ones, and the females too, until the social construct known as ‘the white race’ is destroyed – not ‘deconstructed’ but destroyed.
... treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.
The problem is that it’s not a few radical cranks pushing this line, but a growing academic movement within our universities. This movement has the power to influence the minds of students and to set an intellectual and political agenda. We should therefore be concerned about the appearance of whiteness studies and be ready to take up a political fight against it.