Time To Dismantle “Whiteness”

Some major universities offer a new area of emphasis: “white studies,” or as it is called at Princeton, “whiteness.” A few weeks ago the University of California at Berkeley was the site of the first academic conference on whiteness. Scholars from throughout the country traveled to the Berkeley campus to bring together their work in white studies for the conference. The sponsors of the three day gathering, UC Berkeley’s Department of Ethnic Studies, titled the conference, “The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness.”

The University’s World Wide Web site describes the conference this way: “The event reflects a growing interest in understanding whiteness both as a specific race and as a social category which has played a central role in perpetuating inequality.” The study of whiteness is an outgrowth of scholars recognizing that race studies focus only on minority groups. They believe that by understanding all of the socially-determined race categories we can begin to resolve racial conflict in our society.

The study of whiteness is both comparative and critical. The comparative study of whiteness views whites as one race among other races, while in the critical study, whiteness is viewed as a socially-constructed identity which has historically helped to perpetuate social inequalities.

A partial list of titles from some of the approximately 30 speakers is provocative: The Yiddish are Coming, You are Stealing My Soul, The Not-So-Great White Way, How “Gay” Stays White, and a subject familiar to readers of this column, Loss of Privilege Inside White Working Class Masculinity in the 1990s.

It is impossible to review the entire conference here. You may read a comprehensive account at its home page on the Web (see end of column). However, there are several ideas the conference illuminated that I want to touch upon here.

One of the speakers with a novel interpretation of whiteness is Professor Noel Ignatiev, Department of History, Harvard University. In his speech, The New Abolitionism, Dr. Ignatiev said, “Race is not a biological but a social category. The white race consists of those who partake of the privileges of white skin. The most wretched members share a status higher, in certain respects, than the most exalted persons excluded from it, in return for which they give their support to a system that degrades them.”

Discussing the institutional nature of racism, Dr. Ignatiev makes the following observation: “Just as the capitalist system is not a capitalist plot, racial oppression is not the work of racists.” Racism is maintained by the official institutions of American society: the schools, criminal justice system, unions, and job market. These institutions, may appear to be color-blind, while maintaining a pathway for racist values inherited from the past. Most of the time they are administered by well-meaning people routinely carrying out old-fashioned policies of race discrimination.

“The key to solving the social problems of our age is to abolish the white race,” Dr. Ignatiev said, “which means no more and no less than abolishing the privileges of the white skin. Until that task is accomplished, even partial reform will prove elusive, because white[ness] influence permeates every issue, domestic and foreign, in U.S. society.”

Dr. Ignatiev says, “the existence of the white race depends on the unanimous support of all those it has designated as its constituency. [and] The way to abolish it is to disrupt the conformity that maintains it.” He advocates white people to stop benignly supporting institutional racism. By stepping out and refusing to accept blatant white preference, by becoming traitors to the white race, we can begin to chip away at the social institutions that prevent our nation from becoming one society.

In the battle against the institution of whiteness, Dr. Ignatiev commands some powerful resources, not the least of which is his newsletter, Race Traitor, published on the Web.

Race Traitor claims to be an academic ‘public-square’ where like-minded scholars meet, discuss, and debate their ideas about deconstructing whiteness within American society. The publication promises to encourage descent from those conforming to the white hegemony, popularize examples of defection from its ranks, analyze forces that hold it together and those that promise to tear it apart.

This column has long voiced a need to eliminate racial categories from our official lexicon and welcomes academics to the front lines of the battle to unify our country. It is gratifying to see that so many enlightened white people recognize that as long as there is privilege for those who are white, there will, by definition, be discrimination against those who are not white

Additional information on white studies and whiteness can be found on the internet at:





Originally Published: 4 June 1997, Montgomery Advertiser

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