[Marxism] Roediger on whiteness

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Jul 14 07:10:32 MDT 2006


 From the issue dated July 14, 2006
Whiteness and Its Complications


The theologian Thandeka tells of being faced with a daunting request during 
her first meal with a woman she had recently met. The new acquaintance, a 
descendant of the New England elite, urgently wanted to know "what it felt 
like to be black." Trusting in the sincerity and openness of her 
questioner, but knowing that racial understanding had to also involve 
self-knowledge, Thandeka proposed that the woman play the "race game" 
before the two met again. The game, as described in Thandeka's brilliant 
1999 book Learning to Be White: Money, Race, and God in America (Continuum, 
1999), involved the woman temporarily identifying the race of all white 
people to whom she referred: "my dear white friend," "my beautiful white 
child," "my white husband," and so on. Thandeka lost her dining companion.

Her account of the "race game" captures much of the project of the 
scholarly field known as critical whiteness studies. Thandeka's insistence 
on naming whiteness counters what scholars have called the "invisibility" 
of the dominant race's political and cultural presence. But the game's 
move, especially for a scholar as deeply suspicious of fixed racial 
categories as Thandeka, is far from an essentialist one. In emphasizing 
that white people have racial identities that are constructed and 
remarkable rather than natural and normative, she makes "white" an 
adjective, a recurring reminder of the late cultural critic Edward Said's 
apt point that "no one today is purely one thing." The presence of 
whiteness is announced by its complications.

The "race game" also suggests why critical studies of whiteness have been 
subject to misunderstanding and dismissal. When challenged to experience 
the game, some white people find it easy enough to dismiss it — and 
critical whiteness studies generally — as glib and gimmicky. Focusing only 
on the visibility of whiteness, they miss the complexity of the category, 
raising fears that critical whiteness studies will too easily descend into 
playing the race card.

The very way that scholarly work in this area has emerged has ensured as 
much. If we date the field's presence in academe to the 1990 publication of 
its foundational text in history, Alexander Saxton's The Rise and Fall of 
the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century 
America (Verso), and to the 1992 publication of its seminal text in 
literary criticism, Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the 
Literary Imagination (Harvard University Press), we are reminded that 
critical studies of whiteness are only now reaching adolescence. The field 
in the United States has no journals, no professional association (which it 
does have in Australia), no book series, and no presence as an academic 
department anywhere. Yet despite its modest proportions, it is at times 
castigated as if it sits atop the academic food chain, begging to be 
brought down to size.

That is at least partly because studying whiteness critically has featured 
dimensions that function as a lightning rod for critics. The tone of 
writings on whiteness has reflected not a hesitancy born of its shallow 
roots in academe, but a self-confidence drawing on long traditions of 
people of color who have studied whiteness as a pressing and puzzling 
problem, traditions dating from slave folklore and indigenous tales 
reflecting on contact with the white settler population. The most 
influential studies from the early 1990s were not specialized ones that 
could later be deployed to create a broader narrative: Instead, studies 
that staked out broad claims across time and space came first. Asking why 
so many studies of the ideology of white racism were circular — racism, the 
argument often boiled down to, made whites racist — Saxton broke a wide 
swath of new ground with his analysis of the role that class politics and 
mass culture played in developing that ideology. Morrison sweepingly argued 
that literary critics have universalized whiteness and missed the 
"Africanist presence" in even canonical literature.

Produced in a wave of reflection on race and working-class conservatism 
that followed Ronald Reagan's success at wooing white working-class, even 
unionized, "Reagan Democrats," many critical studies of whiteness reflected 
the Marxist commitments of some of their authors and a sense of urgency in 
defending affirmative action and other race-based solutions to social problems.

White identity was, for those studies, distinctly a problem to be explained 
and addressed. The historian Theodore W. Allen, in his two volumes The 
Invention of the White Race (Verso, 1994 and 1997), best captured that 
point of view. He held that the development, originating in the need for 
social control, of the very idea that there is a white race should be 
regarded as Anglo-America's "peculiar institution," rather than simply 
casting slavery in that role.

Such early works tended toward high seriousness, if not stridency, in their 
political emphases. Given the leftist radicalism of such writers as Allen, 
the anthropologist Karen Brodkin, the historian Noel Ignatiev, the 
political scientist Michael Rogin, Saxton, and myself, whiteness studies 
seemed too hard-edged to some critics. At the same time, influenced by such 
analytic approaches as cultural studies (laying bare, for example, the ways 
that the white "gaze" on others shaped racial understanding) and 
psychoanalysis (linking, for example, the racial, and often gender, 
cross-dressing of blackface minstrel performances to deep desires as well 
as to racism), it also seemed too soft.

Liberal labor historians proved the most ready to dismiss the new 
scholarship as either a set of outlandish theory-driven propositions or as 
commonplaces that everybody somehow already knew. Thus the much-cited 2001 
round table on "whiteness studies" — attacks on the project almost always 
dropped "critical" from its name — in International Labor and Working Class 
History could wonder whether there was "anything there" for the historian, 
answering overwhelmingly in the negative, without inviting to the table any 
of the scholars whose work was under the microscope.

The five recent books considered here all play the "race game" with varying 
degrees of sophistication and skill. They carefully name the 
particularities of their delimited, though still far from narrow, subjects: 
Jewish whiteness, Irish whiteness, "white ethnics," white women, and white 
Southerners. Collectively they suggest where the critical study of 
whiteness is — and might be going — as it reaches the age when it might be 
expected to be learning how to drive.

The direction that these books reflect will make it much harder for 
out-of-hand dismissals of the field to persist. At the same time, the books 
capture the ways that the changing political climate, and settling into 
academe, create the possibility that critical studies of whiteness will 
become less provocative as they become more respectable.

Part of the sophistication of this recent outpouring of books lies in the 
maturing of debates within critical whiteness studies itself. Nowhere is 
that clearer than in the set of questions that Eric L. Goldstein's The 
Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton University 
Press, 2006) addresses and attempts to redefine.

The book joins a large literature on how European immigrant groups, whose 
"racial stock" was suspect at home and in America, or both, experienced, 
learned, and reshaped the racial order in their new country. Borrowing from 
the seminal work of James Baldwin, who wrote of such racial learning as the 
"price of the ticket" of becoming American, such writers as Brodkin, Thomas 
A. Guglielmo, Ignatiev, and others have produced histories that let us 
argue about the very plot of race and immigration history. Baldwin's view 
that newcomers "became white" over a long period in the United States has 
been leavened, for example, by Guglielmo's reminder that in many critical 
ways they were "white on arrival."

Goldstein's new work provides ample evidence that racial identity was made 
in large part in America. He also challenges us to return to another of 
Baldwin's insights. Baldwin simultaneously insisted that the acceptance of 
whiteness by immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe was "absolutely a 
moral choice" and that it was one made under "a vast amount of coercion." 
Such a view illuminates the ways in which race functions as both a category 
into which people are slotted and as a consciousness that they embrace or 
reject in perilous and costly ways. More than any other historian to date, 
Goldstein, an assistant professor of history at Emory University, shows the 
changing ways in which Jewish Americans themselves argued either for their 
own racial particularity, or for their inclusions as whites, or for both. 
He insists on coercion, in Europe and the United States, as central to his 
story; he challenges the singular emphasis of prior authors on what W.E.B. 
Du Bois called the "wages" of whiteness, totaling up costs as well; he does 
not deny that whiteness is a prize but forcefully argues that it also 
carries a price.

If Goldstein self-consciously positions himself in regard to debates within 
critical studies of whiteness, the volume The Irish in Us: Irishness, 
Performativity, and Popular Culture (Duke University Press, 2006), edited 
by Diane Negra, a senior lecturer in the School of Film and Television 
Studies at the University of East Anglia, packages matters differently: Its 
cover alerts readers neither to an emphasis on whiteness nor even on race. 
And yet we are scarcely a page into the book's introduction before we 
learn, in the context of a discussion of whiteness, that a "strong 
connecting thread among the essays is their shared concern with the 
flexible racial status of Irishness."

To note the ways that what one contributor calls the "complex oscillation 
between otherness and whiteness" animates the essays in The Irish in Us, 
while being absent from the title, is not to raise truth-in-advertising 
concerns. Instead that presence and absence offer a place from which to 
reflect on the direction of the critical study of whiteness: As a project, 
it has, by and large, shunned the forms of institutionalization that 
typically define the status of a field. It may well be that the best 
writing on whiteness will in the future speak in other names, with the 
suffusion of its best questions into other literatures its central 

In any case, The Irish in Us represents cutting edges of the critical study 
of whiteness. Fiercely interdisciplinary, it is also profoundly 
transnational, with essays on the country star Garth Brooks playing in 
Ireland, on Ray Charles schooling the Belfast-born Van Morrison, and on 
views of Ireland as a northern outpost of the Caribbean being entertained 
and analyzed. The coproduction of "blackness" and Irishness — so aptly 
historicized and so forcefully brought down to the present in the 
contribution to the volume by Catherine M. Eagan, an instructor in English 
at Las Positas College — is broached with the same engaging combination of 
interest and astringency that the abolitionist and visitor to Ireland 
Frederick Douglass brought to the topic in his seminal contributions to the 
critical study of whiteness 160 years ago. Eagan demonstrates, for example, 
that school curricula covering the Irish famine and migration to the United 
States can hardly avoid comparisons with the slave trade but have, to date, 
generally failed to mount such comparisons with the requisite profundity 
and subtlety.

Matthew Frye Jacobson's Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil 
Rights America (Harvard University Press, 2006) powerfully helps us to 
understand how Irish-American whiteness could emerge in the four decades 
since the height of the American civil-rights movement as a distinctive 
appealing identity — avowedly innocent of the racism practiced by earlier 
white groups like slaveholders or Jim Crow supporters. Jacobson, a 
professor of history and American and African-American studies at Yale 
University, sifts through a mountain of evidence, from social theory to 
political debate to popular culture, to remind us of the very recent 
provenance and complex history of the term "white ethnic." He places its 
emergence squarely in the era of black pride and the heroic movement to end 
the inequities of Jim Crow America.

In that context, a supple "Ellis Island whiteness" could emerge. Distinct 
from assimilationist ideals of the 1950s, such an identity could variously 
accent either "white" or "ethnic" to provide a critique of a nation seen as 
too culturally bland and too dominated by Anglo-Saxon Protestant elites. It 
could claim affinities with African-American inspirations, and establish 
distance from people of color. It could animate the neoconservatism that 
Jacobson discusses so penetratingly and could inflect second-wave feminism 
in the unexpected ways detailed in the book's best and fullest chapter. For 
example, he shows that some of the receptivity to consciousness-raising 
among second-wave feminists found its roots in the ways that activists like 
Mary Gordon, Kate Millett, and Betty Friedan grew up in white ethnic 
communities conscious of their own vulnerabilities to the judgments of 
Anglo-Saxon elites. In those same communities, women's aspirations could 
also be dismissed in particular ways.

Winifred Breines's The Trouble Between Us: An Uneasy History of White and 
Black Women in the Feminist Movement (Oxford University Press, 2006) and 
Jason Sokol's upcoming There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the 
Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975 (Alfred A. Knopf, to be published in August) 
speak to topics in which the marking of whiteness is far more longstanding 
than in the field of immigration history. In the region Sokol treats, 
"Southerner" is often reduced in both academic and popular discussion to 
"white Southerner"; while that identification is too simplistic, 
nonetheless white allies and white opponents of civil rights must be 
central to the story of the freedom movement in the South. The race of 
participants must be named for the story to make sense. Similarly, Breines, 
a professor of sociology at Northeastern University, deliberately sets out 
to write an "uneasy history," in part because she was active in movements 
where disquietingly explicit identifications of the "white left," "white 
liberals," and "white feminism" regularly occurred. The Euro-American 
subjects of Sokol's and Breines's books would thus have been named as white 
even without the rise of critical studies of whiteness.

However, the well-established presence of the "white Southerner" in 
civil-rights history and of the "white woman" in feminist history can make 
such figures so familiar, and so anchored by their distinction from an 
equally familiar African-American other, as to seem natural rather than 
peculiar. While deeply researched and able to narrate both well-known and 
buried stories compellingly, the important works of Breines and Sokol can 
read at times as if some people really are white and as if their embrace of 
whiteness can be understood simply by addressing their differences with 

Such gaps help to explain the curious fact that the section of the nation 
most identified with whiteness, the South, has generally not been the site 
for the most probing studies of whiteness. There are admittedly impressive 
exceptions: Allen's two volumes, Du Bois's Black Reconstruction (Harcourt, 
Brace and Company, 1935), and Grace Elizabeth Hale's Making Whiteness: The 
Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940 (Pantheon Books, 1998). But 
in the main, the presumably simple and transparent racial character of the 
South has made scholars more likely to describe the motion of the races 
there than to problematize how the races came, and continue, to be.

In Breines's case, the adventuresome association of whiteness and pain, so 
well set out in her earlier Young, White, and Miserable: Growing Up Female 
in the Fifties (Beacon Press, 1992), seldom appears in her new story of 
white feminism. In The Trouble Between Us, intriguing ideas on how "white 
nostalgia" has animated reminiscences and scholarly studies, romanticizing 
the "beloved community" of integrationist movements, are not fully followed 
up. The book offers thoughtful observations on how male/female conflicts 
among African-Americans shaped black feminism, but far less on the ways 
that white-on-white gender oppression influenced how white feminists 
organized themselves and imagined the women of color with whom they sought 
to ally. Where Breines does most engage such issues — in a superb account 
of the early women's liberation group Bread and Roses — the emphasis on 
"white social feminists' ability to cut ties with men and families, to 
focus primarily on gender" leaves too much unsaid.

Breines writes that "because white women were members of the dominant race, 
they had little allegiance to their men." However, her book cites polls 
revealing higher support for second-wave feminist policy goals among black 
women than among white women. If we carry the story forward to more recent 
referenda opposing affirmative action, white women have at times been 
effectively mobilized against policies supporting gender equity in ways 
that tragically ally them with "their men" on racial grounds. Breines 
acutely understands how whiteness was a problem that troubled possibilities 
of alliances with women of color, but sometimes misses why: the ways in 
which white women might prioritize racial interests over gender ones.

The sense in which whiteness functions as what the theorist Amoja Three 
Rivers calls an "alliance," and draws people with very different interests 
into that alliance, is similarly little developed in There Goes My 
Everything. Sokol, who recently received his doctorate in history from the 
University of California at Berkeley, sets out to restore and understand 
lost white voices, refusing to let extremist mobs, politicians, and 
sheriffs stand in for all of white opinion, as they often do in 
civil-rights histories. He recovers the views and actions of more "silent" 
whites assiduously and tells critical stories of how grudging acceptance of 
desegregation could occur, often at first among handfuls of highly 
conflicted white Southerners. The result is an apt and even arresting 
narration of the ways that the white South included hard and soft racism, 
iron certainty and deep doubt. However, other divisions among whites that a 
presumed racial unity papered over, especially those of class and gender, 
find little sustained place in the story.

To an extent, in all the recent books discussed here, white identity 
appears far less "peculiar" than it did to Allen 15 years ago. Sweeping 
explanations emphasizing political economy are very little present, and the 
most interesting hints of possible Freudian approaches can be relegated to 
a footnote. It would be tempting to attribute that sea change to the 
disciplining force of academe as the critical study of whiteness matures — 
to the very processes that will makes these weighty and respectable volumes 
so hard to dismiss — and to the declining appeals of Marxism and 

However, what has changed outside the university has mattered at least as 
much. The novelty of a significant white working-class vote for 
conservatives has worn off. The racial loyalty of organized white workers 
has become a less-charged topic as the unions themselves have suffered 
mounting losses of membership. Court decisions have left only a meager 
remnant of affirmative action to be defended, while implying that the 
remnant is safe for a least a short while.

The critical study of whiteness emerged, from slave and American Indian 
traditions forward, from the idea that whiteness is a problem to be 
investigated and confronted. The present moment encourages academic studies 
to tip toward investigation and away from confrontation: The production and 
reproduction of whiteness are considered with great sophistication as a 
historical problem, but with less urgency as a moral and political question.

It remains possible that critical studies of whiteness will grow to a still 
more substantial maturity — critics might say descend into a second 
childhood — that recaptures earlier political urgency. But in the absence 
of breakthroughs applying scholarly insights to how contemporary racial 
issues intersect with immigration, and to how white identity has functioned 
transnationally, the field seems likely to contribute solidly and 
respectably, but less than provocatively.

David R. Roediger is a professor of African-American studies and history at 
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His recent books include 
Working Toward Whiteness: How America's Immigrants Became White: The 
Strange Journey From Ellis Island to the Suburbs (Basic Books, 2005; 
paperback edition from Perseus Books Group, 2006) and the collection of 
essays History Against Misery (Charles H. Kerr, 2006).


The Irish in Us: Irishness, Performativity, and Popular Culture edited by 
Diane Negra (Duke University Press, 2006)

The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity by Eric L. 
Goldstein (Princeton University Press, 2006)

Roots Too: White Ethnic Revival in Post-Civil Rights America by Matthew 
Frye Jacobson (Harvard University Press, 2006)

There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 
1945-1975 by Jason Sokol (Alfred A. Knopf, to be published in August)

The Trouble Between Us: An Uneasy History of White and Black Women in the 
Feminist Movement by Winifred Breines (Oxford University Press, 2006)
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 52, Issue 45, Page B5



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