by Noel Ignatiev
Based on a talk at the University of California, Riverside, February, 1998
Over the past few years, "white studies" has become an academic industry. Scarcely a week goes by that does not see a new book on "the construction of whiteness." There are at least five college Readers on the subject. At least three universities have sponsored conferences on whiteness, and more are planned. The dissertation mill is operating around the clock, and "white studies" may soon boast its own junior faculty. The mainstream press has caught on to the excitement, reporting (often with a snicker) the latest discovery by the academy, that white people have race too. "White studies" may not survive the first frost; nevertheless, among those studying whiteness there have appeared differing tendencies. From a political standpoint, the two camps are the preservationists and the abolitionists.
At the present time, those whom I have chosen to call preservationists seek to identify and preserve a white identity apart from white supremacy and racial oppression. The Center for the Study of White American Culture, based in New Jersey, conducts an internet discussion group and sponsors talks with titles like "Turn a Whiter Shade of Pale: The Search for an Alternative Albinity." Its founder and moving spirit, Jeff Hitchcock, says, "We need people who are conscious of being white, and we need to give them room to be white."1 Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz, editors of the book White Trash, declare "it is time we use our imaginations to invent alternative forms of white identity which... understand the disasters which constitute all forms of racial domination." Seeking "an acceptable, multicultural form of white racial identity," they naturally turn their attention toward elements of popular culture that might plausibly be described as "white."2
Among the elements they look at are the Elvis cult, ice hockey, and gun shows. But there are problems. For instance, the term "white" does not adequately describe Elvis. Before they let black players into the National Basketball Association, people said that basketball was a white sport. If those in attendance at gun shows are overwhelmingly white, it is not because black people have no tradition of guns but because those shows are organized strongholds of the KKK and other white-power types. Black folk don't go there, any more than they go to some sections of the baseball park in Boston. It has nothing to do with white culture. It has to do with exclusion.
On the faculty at a Chicago art school is a person who sports a cowboy hat, tattoos, and a tank-top shirt, bills herself as "White Trash Girl," and employs academic jargon to celebrate vulgarity: "I'm adhering to this white trash aestethic now... It's part of my identity.... I think it's also a socioeconomic situation... I am busty, and I am loud, and I love bad taste. I am bad taste." The interview with her was published in the book edited by Wray and Newitz. Newitz accuses the abolitionists of "hopelessness, brutality, and nihilism," of "demonizing" white people, and even of promoting "prejudicial destruction." We abolitionists may be guilty of many sins, but we do not patronize white working-class people, or treat them as specimens, the way some of our accusers make careers out of doing.
There are a variety of cultures in America: Irish culture and Italian culture and German culture; youth culture and drug culture and queer culture, as well as others I have not named. People called white may take part in one or more of them, but there is no such thing as white culture.
American culture is mongrel. The music, dance, dress, speech, religion, and all other aspects of American culture show the unmistakable marks of the Afro-American presence--as well as the presence of the Indian, the Yankee, and every other ethnic group that has ever been here. Race and culture are different categories.
No reputable scientist any longer holds that race has any foundation in biology, and I shall not review that discussion here. Yet in their eagerness to preserve a white identity, the preservationists sometimes slip back into biological rationales for it. Newitz says whiteness is "an identity which can be negotiated on an individual level. It is also a diversity of cultures, histories, and finally, an inescapable physical marker." Contrary to her claim, whiteness is about neither nature nor culture, but status. Without the privileges attached to the white skin, the white race would not exist, and skin color would have no more significance than foot size or ear shape.
If biologically and culturally whiteness is a fiction, socially it is a fact. Perhaps nothing else exercises so great an influence on the life chances of a person as the race to which that person is assigned. Nothing is to be gained by denying that fact or pretending to eliminate it by playing with statistics.
The white race is a club, in which people are normally enrolled at birth, without their consent. Most members go through life following the rules and accepting the benefits of membership without thinking about the costs. Many times, they are not conscious of its existence--until it is challenged, when they rally militantly to its defense. Immigrants to the U.S., coming to the club later in life, are often more conscious than natives of the white race as a social rather than a natural formation. The club works like any exclusive club, in that membership does not require that all members be active participants, merely that they defer to the prejudices of others.
The United States, like every capitalist society, is composed of masters and slaves. The problem is that many of the slaves think they are part of the master class because they partake of the privileges of the white skin. The abolitionists' aim is not racial harmony but the abolition of the white race, as part of the mobilization of our side for class war. There are many poor whites in the U.S. In fact, the majority of the poor are white. Whiteness does not exempt them from exploitation, it reconciles them to it. It holds down more whites than blacks, because it makes them feel part of a system that exploits and degrades them. For those people, whiteness does not bring freedom and dignity. It is a substitute for freedom and dignity. It is for those who have nothing else. Its abolition is in the interests of all those who want to be free, "whites" no less than others.
Why do we abolitionists insist on our particular formulation of the issue? What difference does it make?
In the first place, to promote whiteness as a legitimate identity is to play a dangerous game. A few years back, a prominent American fascist said that what gave him the greatest encouragement was the development of a white ethnicity and white pride. He was right. But if whiteness is a culture, as both he and many in the white studies industry claim, then what is wrong with "white pride"? I predict that before long the white-power camp will latch onto "white studies" and use it to advance their own goals. If I now appear alarmist, wait and see: in fact, recently the organizers of a white-studies conference in Boston were confronted with a white-power advocate who demanded he be allowed to attend, insisting that he was motivated only by the desire to foster white pride. The organizers debated it amongst themselves for weeks, because although they did not want him there, they had no principled basis on which to exclude him. We abolitionists have no such problem, since we are proudly anti- white. A corollary of the defense of white identity is that it leads its practitioners to pander to the white side of the poor whites. Newitz carries this tendency to the extreme, calling support for affirmative action "self-shaming rituals," and complaining that "images of violent police culture... grow out of already-existing stereotypes of a brutal, ignorant white working class..."
The second danger of white studies is that it leads to "racial sensitivity" workshops and "diversity training" instead of political struggle. A recent newspaper piece cited a white woman who had gone through "anti-racism" training and as a result learned that she was a "racist" and that it was her job to go out and educate other whites that they were "racists." No, that is not her job. That is not what the struggle for justice is about. A young white man wrote me complaining that the abolitionists were too confrontational, reporting that at the gatherings he liked people came away feeling good about themselves--as if the purpose of the struggle against white supremacy was to make white people feel good about themselves. It has been said that people must feel good about who they are, because if they do not, they cannot be "organized." There is a grain of truth in that, but it is not an argument for white identity. For myself, on those occasions when I am silent in the face of white supremacy or otherwise complicit with it, I feel bad, and on those occasions when I resist it, I feel good. In the former case, I am underscoring my whiteness, in the latter undermining it.
We abolitionists favor personal growth and transformation, but we believe they take place best in a context of struggle against oppressive institutions, and when self-examination is put forward as a substitute for institutional struggle, then it is a barrier to progress. One example of the sort of thing I am railing against is that film "The Color of Fear." In that film a few men, white, black, Asian, and Latino, get together and talk about their feelings. The central figure is one white guy, a stubborn, arrogant fool, who insists that he has no race problem. The dynamic of the situation then requires that the others present spend their time arguing with him, which rules out their talking about other things. Finally, it gets to him that the rest consider him the problem. He has an epiphany and starts to weep. Then of course they all have to gather around and reassure him and welcome the reformed sinner into their fraternity--except that there is no indication that anything will be different. He will still go back to his white neighborhood, etc. And this film is grossing big money. It is being sold for hundreds of dollars a pop. The "diversity" industry does not depend on small groups of well-intentioned people meeting in church basements, but on lucrative contracts with corporations to conduct seminars for executives on how to manage a "diverse" labor force. There's gold in them thar hills, and some of the people mining it are like doctors who secretly love the disease they are supposed to be fighting. It is fortunate that in the nineteenth century they had abolitionists instead of diversity consultants; if not, slavery would still exist, and representatives of slaves and slaveholders would be meeting together--to promote mutual understanding and good feeling.
The knowledge that whiteness is socially constructed leads some to conclude that it is too deeply implanted in the society to be overturned. Howard Winant writes, "Like any other complex of beliefs and practices, `whiteness' is imbedded in a highly articulated social structure and system of significations; rather than trying to repudiate it, we shall have to rearticulate it. That sounds like a daunting task, and of course it is, but it is not nearly as impossible as erasing whiteness altogether, as the new abolitionist project seeks to do."3 To this we reply, you may, if you wish, try to "rearticulate" rape or child abuse, but do not ask us to rearticulate whiteness--an identity which, as David Roediger has said, is oppressive and false and nothing but oppressive and false. We agree with the words of James Baldwin, "So long as you think you are white, there is no hope for you." Whiteness is one pole of an unequal relationship, which cannot exist without oppression any more than slaveholding could exist without slaves. We study whiteness in order to abolish it.
In order to abolish the white race, it is necessary to understand how it is reproduced. Just as the capitalist system is not a capitalist plot, racial oppression is not the work of "racists." Nor is it the work of the far Right. People got all agitated about Proposition 209. Now, 209 was undoubtedly a reactionary measure, but in the campaign against it, hardly anyone pointed out that there had never been any serious affirmative action even before that proposition went into effect.
Racial oppression is not the work of "racists." The public schools are doing more harm to black children than the KKK and the Nazis and the White Power people--and the public schools are administered, for the most part, by people who mean well. That is the dilemma. These days, racial oppression is reproduced largely without racial intent, by the mainstream institutions of the society: the schools (which define "excellence"), the job market (which defines "employment"), the welfare system (which defines "poverty"), the family (which defines "kinship"), and of course the legal system (which defines "crime").
As Faulkner said, the past isn't dead, it's not even past. Even if all explicit racial discrimination disappeared, whites would still inherit advantages, what George Lipsitz has called "the possessive investment in whiteness." Whites get jobs through connections built up over generations, buy homes with help from their parents, send their children to schools that channel them to college or trades, and mostly avoid trouble with a wink and a nudge. The existence of all these institutions that reinforce each other is what makes whiteness a system.
How do the abolitionists propose to abolish the white race? In the old days, white supremacy was enforced by the exclusion of black people from the voting box and jury box, and by "colored" and "white" signs on the drinking fountains--fairly visible mechanisms. The Civil Rights Movement challenged those mechanisms, through legal initiatives, legislative measures, and direct action, and on the whole it won. The signs have come down, and racial discrimination is against the law. The task today is to challenge, disrupt, and stop the functioning of the mechanisms that reproduce whiteness.
The abolitionists have not invented this program. Every effort of black parents to keep their children from being routinely assigned to special-education classes is a challenge to whiteness. Every effort to make sure that jobs are publicly advertised and filled, that hiring and upgrading take place fairly, every effort to open up racially-restricted neighborhoods is part of the struggle to abolish the white race. Moreover, there has always existed a tradition among African Americans to view race as a social construct, to understand that whiteness is not something a person is, it is something a person does.
There are about two hundred million so-called white people in the country--that is, two hundred million people who are passing for white, denying the black presence in their souls. Of those two hundred million, how many are really disturbed by white supremacy? Five percent seems like a fair estimate. That's ten million people. Of those ten million, how many might be willing to take action against it. One-tenth? That's one million. Let's cut the figure by nine-tenths, arbitrarily. That leaves an estimated one hundred thousand so-called white Americans who might be willing to risk their personal comfort and safety to do the right thing. That translates into about one thousand people in any major metropolitan area. What would it mean to have one thousand so-called whites joining with others in disrupting schoolboard meetings where tracking policies are determined, breaking up SAT tests, monitoring police and courts and publicizing the results, picketing banks that redline, forcing their way into corporate headquarters, blocking bulldozers at construction projects where the labor force was exclusively white? Is one thousand an unrealistic estimate? Cut it again by nine-tenths, and we are still left with one hundred people in any big city who look white but don't act white--people we might call "reverse oreos." Their presence could not be ignored.
If those who make and enforce the rules of whiteness are the "bad whites," and those who merely go along with them are the "good whites," what do we call those who resist? "Anti-whites," of course. Anti-white does not equal unwhite. The white race does not voluntarily surrender a single member, so that even those who step outside of it in one situation find themselves pulled back in another, if only because of the assumptions of others--unless, like John Brown, they have the good fortune to be hanged before that can happen. The difference between "good whites" and traitors to the white race is the willingness to go beyond socially acceptable limits of protest, if necessary jeopardizing their own ability to draw upon the privileges of the white skin. Abolitionism is not personal renunciation; as a general rule it does no good for a person to move from the suburb to the ghetto, or quit one job for another. The abolitionist project is to break up the institutions that reproduce whiteness, making it impossible for anyone to be white.
The task of the nineteenth century was to abolish slavery. The task of the twentieth century was to end legal segregation. The next task facing the American people is the abolition of the white race as a social category. The movement to abolish slavery stimulated women's rights and other reform movements. The Civil Rights movement helped give birth to the counterculture and various oppositional movements. Today nothing offers a greater likelihood of revolutionizing the political climate than a comprehensive challenge to whiteness and its ways.