Brilliance Without Passion: Whiteness Scholarship and the Struggle Against Racism

Published in Souls, 4:4, Fall, 2002

“…This learned, civilized, intellectual-liberal debate cheerfully raged in its vacuum, while every hour brought more distress and confusion — and dishonor — to the country they claimed to love.” (James Baldwin, No Name in the Street)

Sometimes I wish I had gone to graduate school and received an advanced degree. And then there are those moments when I thank God that I did no such thing.

This is not meant as a put-down for those with such accomplishments under their belts, but rather to make the point that knowledge comes from many places, and for every truth uncovered and made more visible by professors and academics, there are other truths made infinitely more obscure.

Such is the case with the emerging discipline of “whiteness studies,” which to the extent it has been turned into a “discipline,” (mostly by whites, since people of color had long been studying white folks without getting paid for it), is already a troubling concept.

I never took a whiteness studies class, but I learned plenty about whiteness nonetheless, from the places where its impact was broadly felt: in the public housing projects of New Orleans, where I had the opportunity to work with residents as a political organizer; and throughout Louisiana in the early 1990s, where the concept almost propelled David Duke to the United States Senate by providing him with sixty percent of the white vote.

And I learned about whiteness by examining my own life–a non-academic exercise requiring me to relinquish the impersonal tone of most intellectual discourse. Taking inventory of my personal privileges and the costs my family and I paid to obtain them did more to “remove the veil” that hides whiteness from white people than any post-modernist “deconstruction” of literature, media, or history could have done.

To answer the question, “What is the state of whiteness scholarship today,” one must first ask the related yet neglected question: “to what purpose such scholarship?”

Assuming that the purpose of whiteness scholarship is to make whiteness visible to white people (since it is already quite opaque to people of color), in the hopes that they may recognize the injustices that stem from its privileges and work to eradicate them, then I must conclude that whiteness scholarship should be judged as either a failure, or a marginally successful work in progress.

Unfortunately, much whiteness scholarship — though most certainly white — is only scholarly in the most inaccessible fashion. Many whiteness scholars spend so much time figuring out ways to use words that most folks have never heard (and much to their credit never use), that any applicability of their theories to the real world is lost in a casserole of intellectualism.

James Baldwin said it best when he noted that intellectual activity, on its own, is a “masturbatory delusion and a wicked and dangerous fraud,” since “brilliance without passion is nothing more than sterility.” So too, whiteness scholarship. So long as the emphasis is on scholarship, and not active engagement with community and activism for institutional change, such a field will be little more than a professional lifeline for the chattering class (what those who prefer big words might call the “cognitariat”).

Proposition One: any scholarship that relies on such words as “epistemology,” and “axiology,” or makes use of such language at all, is every bit as dead as the language of the business class, what with their “thinking outside the box,” and “capitalizing on our human assets,” and “planned shrinkage.” And since language and its usage are principal tools with which privileged persons maintain their status, for those who claim to seek the eradication of unearned privilege to mystify common concepts by way of an obsessive reliance on a Thesaurus is the ultimate irony.

For proof of this problem, consider the words of a well-respected academic in this field, who has made important contributions to the scholarship of whiteness and racism, but who feels it necessary to include the following in a book with otherwise valuable insights:

“The reiterative revisability of hybrid heterotopias confronts the command of homogeneity with the material and discursive conditions of its horizon, exploding the confines of fabricated racial identities again and again into something new.”

Masturbatory delusion indeed.

Proposition Two: until and unless whiteness scholars come down from the Ivory Tower — pun very much intended — and engage their ideas in common language, in communities where everyday white folks live, and in the journals and media relied upon by such folks, racism and white supremacy will remain unchallenged. It’s a lesson I learned many years ago from the folks at the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, in New Orleans: you have to break things down, say it plain, and be accountable with your language as well as your actions as an “anti-racist.” Otherwise you simply add to the gulf between the privileged few and those whose liberation is the first purpose of antiracism efforts in the first place.

For example, when I wrote the essay “School Shootings and White Denial,” in 2001, so as to confront whites with something readers of color already knew — that social dysfunction among whites is deracialized unlike the same in communities of color — I didn’t consider it “whiteness scholarship,” so much as an obvious but relevant rant. Yet it spread around the internet like a computer virus and was probably read by more people over a six month period than any piece of “whiteness scholarship” ever written.

And this was not because it was particularly well-scripted, but because it broke things down in a way that most academic discourse never does. It took the L.A. Times — which ran a piece about national reaction to the column — to point out to me that indeed the essay had been “whiteness scholarship” in the first place.

After publication I received 8000 e-mails from readers, including thousands of whites — teachers, PTA parents, even a sharpshooter on the Columbine SWAT team — most of whom said they had never seen the racial aspect of school shootings, workplace murders, serial killing or other forms of mostly white pathology before. Amazing as that may seem, the article had triggered more understanding of whiteness in the minds of regular folks than thousands of pages of academic scholarship had ever done.

I say this not to toot my own horn, since the attention I received in the wake of this column was largely accidental, (not to mention a function of my race and gender, which lent it more credibility in the eyes of whites than the same arguments put forth by people of color), but merely to say that I had stumbled onto something that even I had not fully appreciated until it happened.

Proposition Three: if we hope to make whiteness visible so as to engage whites in a struggle to eradicate institutional racism, it will not suffice to merely rattle off or prove the litany of privileges afforded to those of us lacking melanin. Once aware of one’s privileges, our culture does not encourage one to then relinquish them. As many an activist of color has said to me: “Sure you can prove that whites have all these privileges; now tell me why in the hell they would want to give them up?”

Unless we focus just as much attention on the harms and downsides of relative privilege, the best we can hope for is that altruism alone will motivate activism against racism: unlikely given the emphasis our culture places on self-interest.

From the loss of one’s true ethnic and cultural heritage, to the loss of cross-racial friendships harmed by unequal institutional treatment, to the economic consequences of racial inequality for working people generally, to the consequences of the “white-blindness” that ruled the day in these “nice” white places where these school shootings went down, institutional racism and white privilege have deadly and destructive consequences even for most whites.

Whiteness and its privileges create an unrealistic and unhealthy mentality of entitlement and expectation, an assumption of safety and security; all of which can be undone by a layoff, a school shooting, or for that matter a 9-11. After all, the vulnerability evidenced on that day was only a revelation to those who had always had the luxury of feeling safe, and thus not having to think about or care about how others viewed this nation.

Unless we are prepared to talk about what whites have had to lose to become and remain white in the first place, we will do little more than amuse ourselves with our own brilliance, as scholars sometimes do.

One Response to “Brilliance Without Passion: Whiteness Scholarship and the Struggle Against Racism”

  1. I’m writing this retroactively, but I wanted to say: I have encountered “whiteness studies” scholarship in an undergraduate class. You’re correct: for many people it will be inaccessible. But for many white students in my race studies class, it was not only accessible, but the academic language–the privileged language of a white culture–lent it validity, and I think it really made an impact on how they saw themselves and their place in society. There is room for both, I think, your discourse and academic “white studies”. If the highly complex feminist theories of writers like Judith Butler could be used by activists to influence “mainstream” discourse, I am confident that “white studies” language can to, there just needs to be enough of us willing to bridge that divide.


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