Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Whiteness theory: You don't exist and you're bad!

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 other people and benefit from unearned privileges.

To understand the theory in more depth I'd like to comment on an essay written by a whiteness studies advocate, Damien Riggs.

A) Race as a social construct

Riggs believes that race is a social construct rather than a biological reality.

On the face of it, this is a very odd assertion. After all, there do exist people who are white as a matter of human biology - tens of millions of them.

So why would Riggs hold to the "social construct" theory? The answer is, I believe, that the idea of race as a social construct fits in well with liberal political theory. It makes sense in terms of ideology, even if it appears to be at odds with observable reality.

The intellectual orthodoxy of our times is liberalism. Liberals believe that we become human when we are free to choose for ourselves who we are to be. Liberals, therefore, don't like the idea of a "biological destiny". They don't like, for instance, the suggestion that our biological sex influences who we are, as this is something fixed that we are born into rather than determining for ourselves.

Similarly, it makes sense within the terms of liberalism to deny the biological reality of race, and to prefer instead the suggestion that race is merely a social construct, something which humans have made and can therefore readily unmake.

There is one further step in the logic of whiteness studies. In theory, liberals could apply the social construct idea equally to all races. They could argue that all races are mere constructs to be overthrown in favour of a universal individualism.

Whiteness studies is more partisan than this. Theorists like Riggs don't stop at the suggestion that all races are social constructs. They go on to ask a more specific question of why humans invented whiteness. The answer they give is that it's to allow some people to get power over others. Whites exist because whiteness allows them to be privileged oppressors.

This last claim has some particularly unpleasant consequences, which I'll discuss later. For now, though, it should be possible to understand Riggs' summary of his own field of study:

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.

The theory of social construction is not without its contradictions - as those advocating whiteness studies are only too aware.

Theorists like Riggs wish to deny the real existence of race and to persuade us that race is a fictional category. At the same time, though, their central focus is on "whites" as a real category of privileged oppressors. In fact, in trying to highlight racial privilege, one of their aims is to try to get whites to be more conscious of their "racialised" existence - they don't want whites to be race blind.

So whites are being told: you don't exist as a race, but as a racial power category you do exist.

It's a difficult distinction to hold, and 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'

(There's a couple of other important aspects of whiteness studies to discuss but I'll leave them till later.)


  1. Mark
    What a lot of racist tosh that essay is !!
    If you or I were to substitute "blackness" for "whiteness" in any of those paragraphs we would immediately be accused of being Neo Nazi's!

    The opening with the acknowledging the sovereignty of the indigenous people was a bad omen and then it just got progressively more and more into raving moon bat territory. You are a braver man than me for grinding through it enough to write the detailed critique that you have here.
    I will be writing a plug for this post at my blog mate.
    Best wishes
    Iain Hall

  2. Iain, good comment and thanks for the link.

    Of course you're right about "whiteness studies" being racist - despite the academic jargon it's delivered in.

    This is exactly the point I intend to illustrate in a later post on this topic.

  3. The main theme plainly ignores history.

    Pre-Christian Europe was a place where ancestry, tribe and kin meant everything. The importance of group identification can be seen in the art, sagas, religions and social structures. This preceded any encounter with people who looked physically different. It wasn’t invented as a way to oppress, it was always there as a natural and normal group expression.

    That this expression progressed through different social structures, tribe – dynasty – kingship - province - nation state, shouldn’t be all that surprising.

    Relatedness matters to human beings. There is nothing sinister about it. Only those who have an interest in framing normal behaviour as neuroses think otherwise.

    There are so many holes in this “discipline”. North Africans kidnapping and enslaving coastal Europeans preceded the slave trade going in the opposite direction, despite it not being in the common consciousness – or, “no Hollywood films”.

    One could talk of displacing indigenes, exclusion of the other, imperialism and racial religions throughout history – and equally be talking about the Japanese, Tribes of Israel, Arabs, Hutus, Brahmins and countless others.

    I imagine graduates with “Whiteness studies” credits are the type of people who argue that Lord of the Rings is the new "dog whistle White Supremacism".

  4. Relatedness matters to human beings. There is nothing sinister about it. Only those who have an interest in framing normal behaviour as neuroses think otherwise.

    Shane, well said.

  5. There is only ONE race. The human race. Let's all make love. Let's make lots of babies and get on with living on OUR one planet Earth. Who cares what WE'LL end up looking like as a result of such mixing...we're all human, right?

  6. Anonymous, most people when they ask the question "Who am I?" do not give the answer "I am a human". Our quest for identity seeks something more than this.

    Most of us find our identity within a more definite tradition. We are the product of a tradition spanning many generations, with its own distinct culture, its history, its manners and mores, its achievements.

    We find a sense of both "rootedness" and continuity within such a tradition.

    Race is a marker of our membership of such a tradition, since it is the visible confirmation of the interrelatedness of members of the group.

    So it shows a loss of a great many things when we no longer wish to conserve the existence of our own race.

    It means that we have lost a deeper part of our own identity and a depth of love for our own culture and history.

    It means that we no longer feel the debt of ancestry: to carry on for past generations and to preserve for future generations the best of what our own race has achieved.

    A vague and loose sentiment of "we're all humans, let's make babies, who cares what results", just isn't an adequate substitute in trying to build a worthwhile society and civilisation.

  7. I live in the U.S.A…in Atlanta, GA. My mother is from Viet Nam and my dad is from France. I am engaged to a beautiful woman from Belize. We plan on raising our AMERICAN children with a respect & love for all the cultures that make up OUR HUMAN family. I feel blessed to take PRIDE in ALL that I am. Looking at me, one would think I was just “white”…but I am also “Asian”. Looking at my fiancĂ©, one would think she is just “black”…but she is also “Mayan”. I like having more than one cultural background to celebrate. Viva La Difference!

  8. And to those versed in French, "Vive la différence"...

  9. Anonymous 9:24, my argument is not with people who are of a racially mixed background and who take pride in the different strands of their heritage.

    My argument is with white intellectuals who refuse to accept the existence of a white society as legitimate. Such intellectuals either feel no pride in their heritage or else don't think such pride is allowed to influence public policy.

    Imagine you were not racially mixed but belonged to a traditional society with a longstanding heritage and culture. Wouldn't you want to maintain the deep communal identity shared by members of such a society?

  10. In answer to your question, "Wouldn't you want to maintain the deep communal identity shared by members of such a society?" Yes, if that is your choice. I believe that communal identity need NOT be restricted to "race". Believe it or not, there is a communal AMERICAN identity within the American society. I believe that CULTURE supersedes "race" in this regard. For instance, you can be a Costa Rican woman who moves to China with her Costa Rican husband for employment purposes. If they choose, they can adopt the cultural practices of the traditional Chinese society, with its longstanding heritage and culture, or not. Moreover, the Costa Rican couple can CHOOSE to raise their children with a "traditional" Costa Rican identity or raise them the "traditional" Chinese way, or mix and match the two. Lastly, please keep in mind that "Latinos" can be of ANY RACE. What makes "La Raza" is CULTURE. So, a visibly "Chinese" person, with a Chinese surname, whose family has lived in Costa Rica for generations, is Costarricense. Thanks to modern travel, there aren't too many places left in our world where there is exclusively one "race". However, there are still many distinct cultures...including a "white culture"; one with European roots.

  11. Anonymous, your way isn't going to work. You can't have a society based on open borders, in which individuals choose their own identity, and in which traditional culture still flourishes.

    Something's going to give in all this. If most of the immigrants are from one country, then perhaps this one immigrant culture will replace the older established culture. If the immigrants are from diverse backgrounds, then perhaps there won't be a communal culture of any depth and a pared down pop culture and commerical culture will dominate.

    Furthermore, you're wrong to say that this is an equal process brought about by modern travel. China is not experiencing a massive, transformative influx of Costa Ricans. It is the Western countries which have decided, for reasons of a misguided political ideology, on open borders.