Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Whither whiteness?

For reasons I really don't need to get into here, I have had occasion to think a lot lately about whiteness -- not just who counts as white but what makes whiteness substantively different from blackness or brownness or whatever else, and indeed whether whiteness can even be considered a positive identity at all.

So I am interested to see this new New Yorker essay by Kelefa Sanneh, one of my favorite music writers since forever, examining whiteness and the dubious concept of "white culture" today. Ultimately I find that this essay is a bit gentler than it needs to be, but it gets some big things right and besides that deserves credit just for taking on the subject.

This is a relatively minor point in the essay, but it's well stated and hits directly on what I think is an increasingly common phenomenon. (Nevermind the mention of Glenn Beck in this graf, it is just one example.):
In fact, [Glenn] Beck's slippery concern with racism -- outrage over false charges of anti-black racism, combined with outrage over anti-white racism -- seems central to a certain kind of white-identity politics. This professedly anti-racist argument is about as close as anyone comes to articulating a mainstream political agenda that is explicitly pro-white.
Obviously it is perfectly logical and consistent to oppose anti-white racism as well as other forms of racism. But when it's combined with aggrieved suspicion and outright anger at virtually any mention of anti-black racism -- an example of this would be Andrew Breitbart's latest crusade -- it is hard to avoid the conclusion that concern with racism per se is not the real motivating factor in the matter. And again, this is something that has become very, very common.

I think that Sanneh's conclusion is interesting but perhaps a little too pat:
[I]t's getting easier to imagine an American whiteness that is less exceptional, less dominant, less imperial, and more conspicuous, an ethnicity more like the others. In the Obama era -- the Tea Party era -- whiteness is easier to see than ever before, which means it’s less readily taken for granted. If invisibility is power, then whiteness is a little less powerful than it used to be.
Is this true? Couldn't it also be the case that we're seeing the revival in the U.S. of some semi-dormant strain of genuine white supremacy? And that instead of receding into just another sort of soft tribalism, whiteness, fueled by its many narratives of victimization, will actually attempt to rise back up to reclaim its dominance? In short -- isn't there real reason to worry about the path we're headed down?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


you might want to check out gary taylor's history of the concept of racial whiteness, _buying whiteness_.

long time. hope you're well.