The basic claim of whiteness studies is that race is a social construct, rather than a biological reality, formed to allow some people to enjoy an unearned privilege at the expense of the oppressed other.
But who is this oppressed other? According to Australian whiteness theorists it is the Aborigines. This leads these theorists to talk a lot about "indigenous sovereignty".
Damien Riggs, for instance, states that "indigenous sovereignty is the ground on which we stand", whilst the whiteness studies association has as its first aim to "respect the existence of and continuing rights deriving from Indigenous sovereignties in Australia and elsewhere".
But this creates some logical tensions within whiteness theory. Just as it's difficult to assert that whites don't exist as a race but are a racial power group, so too is it awkward to claim that Aborigines don't exist as a race but are nonetheless a real entity, even to the point of being 'sovereign' over other groups.
Whiteness theorists, in other words, are assuming Aborigines to have some real, essential existence as a distinct group, whilst at the same time treating the existence of whites as a kind of fiction to be socially deconstructed.
Furthermore, it's difficult to set up an opposition between really existing indigenous peoples and fictitious whites, given that it is whites who are the indigenes in Europe.
Do European whites have a real sovereign existence, given that they are the indigenes? I would bet anything that whiteness theorists would wish to argue no, but this is the implication of connecting indigeneity and sovereignty.
Another feature of whiteness studies is the idea of complicity.
According to this idea all whites, even the whiteness theorists themselves, remain part of the oppressor group. There is no way to separate oneself from this group, as all whites benefit from unearned privilege and are trapped unconsciously within white ways of knowing the world.
In his essay, Riggs frequently turns to the idea of complicity, as when he reports that:
all non-indigenous people are implicated in practices of oppression, and that the task is to develop ways of exploring this complicity, rather than denying our location within it.
Why stress the idea of complicity? It seems to me that whiteness theorists are trying to close any loopholes by which whites might escape "reflexivity": a discomforting confrontation with their own oppressive privilege.
The noose is set very tight. Riggs quotes another whiteness theorist, Janne Haggis, to the effect that anti-racists are just as complicit as racists:
I contend, we (the social analyst) still construct in the anti-racist position, a moral space of no more or less complicity.
Nor are whites who give up power and privilege any less complicit. Again, Riggs quotes a colleague, Fiona Probyn, who asserts that:
claims to "giving up power" only make sense in relation to having the ability to choose to do so - they only reassert white dominance.
Nor are whites who choose to identify with Aborigines off the hook. Riggs returns to Jane Haggis who informs us that the task for the 'traitorous' sociologist of whiteness (her description) is, in part, that of:
refusing the seductions of slipping into indigeneity to avoid the discomforts of being within whiteness.
So there you are. There are to be no possible ways of avoiding the "discomforts" of whiteness.
Once again, though, there are contradictions in the theory. The idea of complicity is supposed to force whites into reflexivity. It does this, but only at the cost of what whiteness studies was supposed to achieve in the first place.
Liberal moderns treat race as a social construct because they don't like the idea that individuals might be influenced in important ways by a fixed, unchosen category like biological race.
Whiteness studies is part of this liberal effort to deconstruct the concept of biological race as a fixed category. The idea of complicity, though, lets fixed categories return with a vengeance.
According to whiteness theorists, our existence is thoroughly racialised and there is no possible way to escape from our racialised category. Our position is fixed.
So much for the "multiple fluid identities" usually touted by liberal moderns!
There is one final point to be made. The idea of complicity is supposed to leave all whites stuck in a position of discomfort. Our whiteness is supposed to cling to us as a trouble.
But what healthy minded person would accept such a theory? Why would anyone willingly take on a negative self-identity? Who would willingly make themselves subservient to others in their moral status?
We are being asked to share a kind of psychological perversity. And all for the sake of a political theory which struggles to be logically coherent.
(I'll finish here, but return in a later post to look at the most unpleasant aspect of whiteness studies.)