Whiteness Studies: Deceptive or Welcome Discourse?
Dr. Maulana Karenga was one of the scholars who pressed for Black studies in the late 60’s and early 70s. As the author of Introduction to Black Studies, a text used widely throughout the academy, he also is the founder of Kwanzaa, a celebration of family, community, and culture observed each December by many African Americans. Currently professor and chair of the Black studies department at California State University-Long Beach, Karenga recently shared his views about the emergence of Whiteness studies and its impact on existing ethnic studies scholarship with Black Issues Associate Editor Robin Bennefield. The following are excerpts from that exchange.
BI: What are your thoughts on the works of Whiteness scholars and the value of Whiteness as a field of study?
MK: The new focus on the study of Whiteness by Whites and other scholars engenders ambivalence on several levels. It immediately raises questions about its intent, methodology and effect. As a Black studies scholar, my tendency is to be ambivalent about new calls for the study of White people when the majority of the curriculum is about them and usually in the most Eurocentric and vulgarly self-congratulatory forms. Certainly, my colleagues in Black studies and I have been consistent in our calls for the critical study of the pathologies of White society, especially its addiction to racism and White supremacy. So, in as far as Whiteness studies offers an additional critique of the source and character of White domination and contributes to public policy initiatives to correct wealth and power inequities, we see this as a reaffirmation of our ongoing contentions and a useful addition to our own work and we welcome the discourse.
However, such a thrust carries with it a capacity to become both conceptually diversionary and intellectually deceptive. First, such studies of “Whiteness” as a concept as distinct from White supremacy as thought and practice of domination can end up psychologizing White domination in counterproductive ways. This begins with one’s rediscovering and trotting out the old liberal argument that Whites are victimized like the people of color they victimize. This leads to comparative victimization discourse and thus, the intentional or inadvertent cultivation of an empathetic understanding of the oppressor. Whatever merit this approach may have in mitigating White angst about their power and privilege, it tends to diminish the necessary moral and social distinction between oppressor and oppressed, and thus moves away from the central issue of White domination.
Closely related to this conceptual misadventure, Whiteness studies might also revive the Hegelian doctrine of the master’s struggle for recognition as master as a kind of social and moral equivalency of the enslaved person’s struggle for recognition as a human being. Again, such studies must be careful not to suggest such social or moral equivalence with the peoples’ of color ongoing struggle against White supremacy and for human freedom and human flourishing. Otherwise, Whiteness studies again deteriorates into a problematic comparative study of the oppression of people of color and Whites which cannot be sustained intellectually or morally.
Also, focusing on Whiteness as a concept can degenerate into a project that results in treating Whiteness as simply an intellectual problem of abnormal and contradictory thought and “invention” rather than a social problem of domination, unequal wealth and power, injustice and unfreedom. The central problem is not White attitudes but White domination. This discussion of the abolition of the concept of Whiteness still leaves White power in tact. Whether White people see themselves in cultural terms (Europeans) or racial terms (White) does not solve the problem of their domination of peoples of color. It is this attitudinal approach that leads to focus on the alleged “invisibility of Whiteness,” when in fact evidence of its reality and power in the academy, society, and the world is visible and abundant. It is clearly assumed to be “natural” and thus often not engaged as problematic. But it is hardly invisible. What is required here then is not only more categorical preciseness in use of terms, but also focus on concrete expressions of White power rather than on muddled and mistaken conceptions of self by White people. Key to avoiding these conceptual problems is to focus not on Whiteness as a concept, but on White supremacy as a social problem, a problem of thought and practice which destroys human lives, human cultures, and human possibility and requires radical treatment on a global scale.
White studies can also begin to cultivate misunderstanding, as did early studies on racial prejudice, by confusing or conflating racial prejudice with racism. For racial prejudice is simply an attitude, hostility, and hatred of the other based on assumptions about the biological and its effect on the social and cultural. But racism is the practice of turning that hatred and hostility into public policy. Racism expresses itself in three basic ways: as imposition — an act of force and violence; as ideology — pseudo-scientific, religious, biological, and cultural absurdities about the inferiority of the other in order to justify domination; and as institutional arrangement – the establishment of structures and processes to insure and perpetuate the domination.
If Whiteness studies focuses on these factors, it reaffirms and reinforces Black studies initiatives and the initiatives of other ethnic studies. If it doesn’t and focuses on Whites’ invention of themselves, on reaffirmations that biologically we are similar, and that some Whites were once treated like Blacks, etc., then it brings nothing new to the discussion and can quite possibly divert us from focus on the fact of White domination and the policy initiatives and struggles necessary to end it.
As far as these Whiteness studies scholars adequately attend to these concerns, the field has possibilities and again simply reaffirms and augments Black studies scholars’ work. I think it would be an important act of collegiality and honest scholarship as well as grounds for a collaboration, if these scholars would concede the early and ongoing contributions to this discourse by Black studies and other ethnic studies scholars.
BI: Is the study of White privilege necessary to understanding other ethnic experiences in the U.S.?
MK: First, the study of White privilege, in the strict sense of the word, is not and should not be the major concern in the study of Whiteness or White supremacy. The key analytical focus and factor is domination, especially in the areas of politics, economics, and culture. Here, it is a question of power — the ability to impose one’s will as distinct from privilege — a specially granted favor or advantage by one in power. This is an example of how focus on White-skin privilege can become a substitute for focus on White people’s power, which is both the source and sustainer of White-skin privileges, which even poor and relatively powerless Whites are granted.
Secondly, discussing White ethnics and “other ethnic experiences,” in the context of ethnic peoples of color is to begin the trip down the slippery slope of conflation and confusion of oppressed and oppressor, those who are dominated and those who dominate. Certainly, whatever the early ethnic disadvantages of Irish and Jewish ethnics, which are the most discussed White ethnics, White-skin privilege and access to power allows for their accommodation within the racial protocol and power structure of the dominant society as their current status demonstrates.
On the other hand, people of color cannot be accommodated adequately in the current system because of the factor of race, a socio-biological category constructed to assign human worth and social status using Whites as the paradigm. And thus, attempts at comparison of the oppression of peoples of color and White ethnics might have the advantage of simplistic conceptions of common ground, but in the end diminishes or even obscures the concrete problem of White supremacy.
Now in terms of the study of White power and domination, clearly one of the main focuses of Black studies and other ethnic studies is a critique of White supremacy — its origin, structure and functioning, as well as the possibilities of social initiatives to end it. In fact, in the four fundamental aspects of the Black studies mission, the critique of White domination plays an ongoing role. These are: 1) the ongoing critical search for truth and meaning in society and history; 2) a radical alternative to the established order’s ways of viewing and approaching the world; 3) a moral critique of constraints on human freedom and dignity, especially those based on race, class, and gender, and 4) a critical contribution of correctives and models of possibilities toward creating the just and good society, and the maximum conditions for human freedom and human flourishing in the world.
BI: Does Whiteness studies have a place in ethnic studies? How would it tie into ethnic studies?
MK: My sense is that there is a real resistance to Whiteness studies or White ethnic studies being placed in ethnic studies, which has historically meant studies of the experience of peoples of color in the U.S. Such a question is much like asking whether or not a new field of maleness studies should be grafted on to or integrated into women’s studies? Certainly, women’s studies will, of necessity, discuss issues of problematic maleness — i.e., patriarchy, male chauvinism and sexism — but creating a space for it in women’s studies seems to reaffirm the importance of being male rather than offer a critique or corrective. Thus, integrating White ethnic studies or Whiteness studies into a single or combined ethnic studies only reaffirms the centrality of Whiteness which would become a central focus in what was assumed, at the founding of the various disciplines of ethnic studies, to be “zones of freedom” to recover and speak our own special cultural truth and make our own unique contributions to understanding and appreciating various ways of being human in the world.
A more effective approach to Whiteness studies is to integrate it into every discipline in the traditional curriculum. This saves it from an isolated existence among a few left and liberal scholars who teach it as a special problem rather than an intellectual and social problematic that permeates society and the world and thus merits curricular inclusion in every discipline. Such curricular integration also prevents it from becoming the preferred analysis of Whiteness and White domination because it is born of White initiative and nurtured by liberal and left Whites of progressive leaning and thus likely to be privileged because of its White paternity and nurturing. Out of respect for the evidence of history, one must note that things once embraced by Whites tend to assume greater importance, in spite of the prior rigorous and valuable scholarship and attention scholars of color have given them.
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