Whiteness

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Description

Helen Pluckrose, summarizing the theory developed by DiAngelo:

"According to DiAngelo,

We might think of whiteness as all the aspects of being white—aspects that go beyond mere physical differences and are related to the meaning and resultant material advantage of being defined as white in society: what is granted and how it is granted based on that meaning.


  • Whiteness is structural:

To say that whiteness is a location of structural advantage is to recognize that to be white is to be in a privileged position within society and its institutions—to be seen as an insider and to be granted the benefits of belonging. This position automatically bestows unearned advantages.


  • Whiteness is a particularly privileged perspective:

To say that whiteness is a standpoint is to say that a significant aspect of white identity is to see oneself as an individual, outside or innocent of race—“just human.” This standpoint views white people and their interests as central to, and representative of, humanity. Whites also produce and reinforce the dominant narratives of society—such as individualism and meritocracy—and use these narratives to explain the positions of other racial groups.


  • Whiteness is culture:

To say that whiteness includes a set of cultural practices that are not recognized by white people is to understand racism as a network of norms and actions that consistently create advantage for whites and disadvantage for people of color. These norms and actions include basic rights and benefits of the doubt, purportedly granted to all but which are actually only consistently afforded to white people.

So whiteness is to be understood as this all-pervasive but invisible system of racism that white people perpetuate without even knowing they are doing it. This is a radically different understanding of racism from the commonly accepted one, which holds that racism is prejudice on the grounds of race, usually accompanied by an acknowledgment that, in modern western history, it has overwhelmingly been perpetrated by white people against non-white people. Nevertheless, in the common understanding of racism, white individuals can choose whether to uphold or reject racist ideas, and moral progress, particularly over the last sixty years, has resulted in a consensus that it is morally wrong to hold racist ideas and morally good to reject them. This is a very positive development, which DiAngelo herself acknowledges when she says:


The final challenge we need to address is our definition of “racist.” In the post-civil rights era, we have been taught that racists are mean people who intentionally dislike others because of their race; racists are immoral. Therefore, if I am saying that my readers are racist or, even worse, that all white people are racist, I am saying something deeply offensive; I am questioning my readers’ very moral character.

She goes on to argue for the Critical Social Justice concept of racism as a power system that results in white privilege, which she defines as “a sociological concept referring to advantages that are taken for granted by whites and that cannot be similarly enjoyed by people of color in the same context,” but she is never very clear about what these advantages are. In particular, very little attention is paid to class or individual advantages and disadvantages.

Unsurprisingly, many white people are not delighted to be told that they are inherently racist and maintaining a racist system simply by existing and interacting with others. They may not respond well to the mind-reading approach taken by DiAngelo and her ilk, which insists that the whiteness scholars know the white mind better than the individual owners of those minds. Those who have been through particular hardship might become quite annoyed to be told that they are more privileged than someone who has never been through any such hardship, but has darker skin, and to be also told that they are actively oppressing that person. This leads many white people to disagree with or refuse to engage with DiAngelo. This led her to produce her theory of white fragility which explains away all the people who disagree with her:

Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, [white people] become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable—the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I conceptualize this process as white fragility." (https://areomagazine.com/2020/06/26/is-white-fragility-training-ethical/?)


Discussion

New Discourses Commentary:

"Whiteness, in Critical Social Justice, is to be understood as the defining property of being classified as white, according to the social constructivist understanding of race. Whiteness is therefore also the “property,” in terms of “social and institutional status and identity imbued with legal political, economic, and social rights and privileges that are denied to others” (see also, people of color) that white people have unjust access to by virtue of having been classified as white. It is therefore also connected to an ideological stance of white supremacy, which roughly means a belief that white people deserve these “unjust” advantages for whatever set of reasons.

White people are believed to be inherently invested in whiteness by having been socialized to accept it as normal and good and to enjoy its benefits (see also, privilege, internalized dominance, and anti-blackness). A great deal of Theory in Critical Social Justice is dedicated to describing how white people are invested in whiteness and work to keep it, including myriad concepts like white comfort, white complicity, white equilibrium, white fragility, white ignorance, white innocence, white silence, white solidarity, white talk, white woman tears, racial stress, the racial contract, aversive racism, anti-blackness, cultural racism (see also, new racism), a lack of racial humility and racial stamina, active ignorance, pernicious ignorance, willful ignorance, and privilege-preserving epistemic pushback, not to mention excluding other ways of knowing (see also, racial knowledge) through epistemic injustice, testimonial injustice, hermeneutical injustice, epistemic oppression, and epistemic violence, which deny alternative “knowledge(s)” and devalue members of minoritized groups in their status as knowers. That is, critical whiteness studies obsesses about this topic.

As with everything in the Theory of Social Justice, “whiteness” has to be understood as a socially constructed system of power that is ultimately self-interested, whether by intention or merely by the corrupting influence of privilege, that defines and maintains white dominance and the oppression of people of color. Theory insists it must be critically examined and dismantled (see also, antiracism, critical consciousness, wokeness, and revolution). Whiteness is believed to be the foundation of the hegemonic force in society that critical race Theory exists to unmake.

While white people are alleged to be automatically complicit in whiteness by virtue of the accidents of their birth (see also, white complicity), since whiteness is a system or a kind of social property, whiteness is not something that is limited to white people only. People of color can also subscribe to, support, maintain, or legitimize whiteness by adopting “white supremacist” attitudes that “white” ways of doing things are effective or better than other alternatives. Such people of color might be accused of any of the following for supporting (or merely failing to criticize) whiteness in a systemic sense: white supremacy, white adjacency, acting white, being a race traitor, being a model minority, internalized racism, internalized oppression, being a conservative (of the status quo), or suffering from some other form of false consciousness or self-serving reward seeking such as seeking white approval. These accusations are a way of discrediting or silencing the voices of people of color who do not support Theory.

White people—and people of color, in their own ways—are expected to take up a “lifelong commitment” to an “ongoing process” of “antiracism” work as a result of their inherent complicity in whiteness. This entails engaging in a critical examination of the ways in which one is complicit in, benefiting from, supporting, maintaining, legitmizing, or failing to criticize whiteness in all of its manifestations. As critical race educator Robin DiAngelo puts it, the goal is not to construct a “positive white identity,” which is impossible (see also, good white), but instead to endeavor “to become less white.” In antiracism work, there is no neutral. Either you are an anti-whiteness activist, or you are complicit in whiteness, which is to say a racist and white supremacist. White people must develop a critical consciousness in this way, i.e. become “woke,” which is to say activists who operate from a position of Social Justice-oriented critical theory.

One of the major objectives of antiracism “work,” as it is called, for white people is to attempt to critically examine the meaning of being white, i.e. to put social significance in the racial identity of being white (thus whiteness itself) and to problematize it by understanding the injustice inherent in the privilege it carries. This is considered difficult because of a variety of Theoretical concepts that begin with racial knowledge (see also, episteme) and standpoint epistemology, the idea that one’s social position (i.e., identity—here, race—and its relationship to systemic power dynamics as analyzed critically via intersectionality) influences what it is and is not possible to know (especially about the lived experience of marginalization or oppression).

Particularly, it is believed that privilege blinds a person to an understanding of oppression, say by racism, and affords the ability not to have to engage with its realities, thus leaving the white person in a state of “white ignorance.” As noted above, this is profoundly Theorized through a variety of concepts. Take, for example, an alleged “racial contract” maintained throughout whiteness that agrees to perpetuate white advantage, the notion of “racial stress” that is uncomfortable for whites and upsets their “white comfort,” and a lack of “racial stamina” to engage the critical view of whiteness authentically (read: such that and until one agrees fully with them) that induces “white fragility” and other attempts to maintain one’s privileged status (e.g., privilege-preserving epistemic pushback, active ignorance, willful ignorance, and pernicious ignorance, among others). These have the effect of discrediting and silencing any reasoned opposition by white people or those who are deemed white adjacent (and, frankly, bullying them).

People of color, on the other hand, are admonished that the “master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” and are therefore instructed to identify “white methods” (e.g., white empiricism, white science, and white mathematics) as being manifestations of whiteness that need to be eschewed, avoided, criticized, and dismantled, including by acts of strategic resistance (see also, strategic essentialism, strategic ignorance, and strategic racism). These “master’s tools” can, drawing from critical race educator Alison Bailey and others, include reason, logic, science, liberalism, reliance upon evidence, civil discourse, philosophical dialectic, and so on (see also, ways of knowing), and in practice have included such concepts as being on time to meetings and making to-do lists and carrying them out in an orderly fashion, including in legislative settings (e.g., in the state of Washington’s Equity Task Force). That this is unlikely to improve anything is beside the point, which is a revolution that destroys anything that “dominant groups” have built, value, utilize, or esteem (because the assumption that the values and interests of dominance are intrinsically baked into all such systems)." (https://newdiscourses.com/tftw-whiteness/)


Social Justice Usage

Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, first edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2012, p. 119.

"Critical scholars define racism as a systemic relationship of unequal power between White people and people of Color. Whiteness refers to the specific dimensions of racism that elevate White people over people of Color. Basic rights, resources, and experiences that are assumed to be shared by all, are actually only available to Whites. Although many Whites feel that being White has no meaning, this feeling is unique to White people and is a key part of what it means to be White; to see one’s race as having no meaning is a privilege only Whites are afforded. To claim to be “just human” and thus outside of race is one of the most powerful and pervasive manifestations of Whiteness." (https://newdiscourses.com/tftw-whiteness/)