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Toward an ‘Unglorious Whiteness’ [Book Review]

1 June 2016

Linda Martín Alcoff. The Future of Whiteness (Chelmsford, Mass.: Polity Press, 2015).

Whiteness, white identity, and therefore white people are in a historical moment of turmoil, according to Linda Martín Alcoff, brought on by various civil rights movements, demographic shifts in the U.S., and a broadening understanding of the unearned privileges of whiteness in American (and European) society. This moment of turmoil, a historical consequence of social and material changes on the ground of white people’s experiences, may provide an opportunity to reformulate and transform whiteness for a future of, to summarize a bit facilely, inter-racial egalitarianism. To support her normative claims, Alcoff engages social scientists, historians, and fellow philosophers to think her way forward for anti-racist politics in the U.S. (and, I would add, her arguments would be equally germane in post-colonial Europe). This interweaving of her philosophical argument with mounds of empirical evidence from across various scholarly disciplines empowers her bold ultimate conclusion:

“What would it mean for whites to become more positively embodied as white within a multipolar social landscape? Perhaps the critical element will involve coming to understand whiteness as a mere particular among other particulars, rather than as a universal that stands as the exemplar of civilization. … [L]iving whiteness mindfully as a particular would have a deflationary effect, and produce an opening to the possibility of learning more than leading. It would also place whiteness within a complex multiplier history involving varied relations with others, some of which became constitutive of whiteness itself.” Aloof, The Future of Whiteness, 176-7.

To get to this point, Alcoff had to first break down what whiteness actually is, proposing a tripartite way to conceive of of white identity specifically and social identities more broadly. Academic and political identity discourses often slide into a kind of consumer individualism, where personal experiences of subjectivity are paramount; and no matter how much the scholar or activist may protest otherwise, identity as a category of analysis seems to nearly always end up ignoring the social origins of identities and their fundamental sharedness. Alcoff, however, presents an account of identity that insists on its sociality and sharedness, while spanning the breadth between the collective and the individual by breaking it down into three interrelated but distinct parts: the empirical identity, which locates it within a group, with a particular social position, at a specific time and in a specific place; the imaginary identity, which includes symbolic and representational formations, myths, narratives, images, sounds that make up the imaginary surrounding our identities; and finally, the subjective identity, which begins with individual experiences, but delves deep into the ways that social identities constitute and shape subjectivity itself, including perception and response to the environment (see 74-90).

With this three-way whiteness expounded, Alcoff is free to critique the historical formations of white exceptionalism in detail (Ch. 2). Whiteness has seen itself as exceptional in both senses of the word, as being better than all other kinds of humans and as not being subjected to the same rules or restrictions as all other kinds of humans. White exceptionalism consists, for Alcoff, of two related ideas: white supremacy and the myth of white vanguardism. White supremacy is relatively obvious at this point, in terms of the ways social power and privilege have flowed to whiteness over the past several hundred years of European domination of the globe. White vanguardism is an interesting break out of one piece of white supremacy, the myth that white people are at the forefront of the production of culture, knowledge, art, ideas, of human life itself. This idea, often held unconsciously, gives support and confidence to white folks across class and ethnic lines in multiple kinds of situations. It’s the presumption of a white-cultural superiority that forms the habits of mind of whiteness, undergirding its social supremacy.

The book as a whole, though, is making a more substantial political and cultural claim, which I will boil down to two related sub-claims.  First, she attempts a critical political corrective to the desire among whites to eliminate race generally, and whiteness specifically, as a social category; and second is her proposal for the transformation of whiteness into the future. The political goal to eliminate whiteness — which she terms eliminativism — has both left and right-wing version, with the right-wing version anchored in denialism and the left-wing version anchored in laudable anti-racist values but motivated unconsciously by a desire to escape the pain of the history and effects of whiteness. Alcoff justly dismisses and ignores right-wing denialism and focuses her attention throughout the book on anti-eliminativism — in short, that the goal should not be to eliminate, erase, eradicate, or destroy whiteness, but rather to transform it into something else.

Anti-eliminativism is based on, as far as I can tell, two somewhat problematic foundations. First is her somewhat willful oversimplifications of various scholars and disciplines she’s arguing against — especially Roediger, a labor historian, and Appiah, a philosopher of identity, race, and cosmopolitanism — including several awkward mischaracterizations of the massive body of social scientific work about whiteness and the motivations of anti-racist social scientists. That said, although these problems of scholarship crop up throughout the book, they really don’t distract from the strong throughline of Alcoff’s claims. The real problem with her anti-eliminativism comes toward the end of the book, where she lays out her three arguments against eliminating whiteness, arguments she aims at left scholars and activists. Her first two reasons are solid social scientific observations: 1) eliminativism misapprehends what social identities are, assuming they are merely discursive or mythological overlays, when in fact they are material conditions and accumulated habits of mind and behavior and perception; 2) the history of whiteness marks specific experiences of a variety of kinds of white people and impacts the way they respond emotionally to the world. But Alcoff goes a step further. She concludes from the social science that whiteness is itself a positive identity, constituting subjectivities at deep levels. Indeed, whiteness is baked into not just institutions, but people, and is not going away any time soon. Her first reason to support anti-eliminativism, then, is more or less a pragmatic one, that whiteness is here to stay, so we need a different approach to dealing with it.

Alcoff aims her third anti-eliminativist reason against the argument I would make, that whiteness as a social formation must be destroyed (or significantly reduced) in order to eliminate white supremacy and racism. Whiteness has been historically the center-pole of the global, colonial, western racist tent. It is, therefore, hard to see why it should be preserved in any form. That it is entrenched, that it forms subjectivities, that it channels emotional interactions is merely to state that whiteness is part of the way things are; but the status quo must never be its own justification. That it’s hard to eliminate is not convincing enough of an argument for why it should be preserved, even in a dramatically modified form. Unfortunately, Alcoff’s response to my (and others’) objection is to impute motivations on those who make it, that such white folks are simply suffering from white guilt and the desire to escape or transcend historical bads. This may or may not be true, but to attack the motivation for a claim is not the same thing as addressing the claim itself. I found her argument about white guilt insightful and moving, actually—and that she does so through a critical reading of James Cameron’s movie Avatar is kinda brilliant. In fact, I don’t doubt that many of us (Alcoff included) who work or teach in anti-racist areas feel heavily the burden of whiteness’s violent and exploitive history. And with Alcoff herself, I would argue that such guilt can be turned to forthbearing ends in fighting the anti-racist fight. And yet, blue aliens notwithstanding, Alcoff never provides a satisfying reason to abandon elimination of whiteness as a goal, other than its pragmatic impossibility.

Fortunately, what follows from anti-eliminativism is her second major sub-claim, a call for white people to develop their own kind of double consciousness. Whereas racism and white supremacy foisted double consciousness upon African Americans, as brilliantly theorized by W.E.B. Du Bois in Souls of Black Folks (1903), Alcoff contends that white people must embrace the real turmoil of whiteness in our present historical moment and make of it a kind of white double consciousness. White double consciousness would be fundamentally different from Du Bois’s black concept, inasmuch as it comes from the history of white supremacy and the myth of white vanguardism. Alcoff’s white double consciousness would consist in, on one hand, an honest, open-hearted, detailed accounting for the history of white identity and white supremacy; that history must be held in consciousness in order for white folks to understand and be accountable for their unearned social privileges and to ensure racial justice in the future. The second consciousness must be a full-throttle effort to reimagine whiteness, to reconstitute it in a different, anti-racist way, to transform it into one among many identities rather than the controlling or universal identity. I found this normative prescription for a transformation of whiteness compelling, and was further swayed by some of her ideas, sprinkled throughout the book, for how to think about whiteness as an umbrella term for a wide diversity and breadth of American experiences (class, regional, religious, sexual, etc.) and to include and foreground within it centuries of white activist struggles for justice, racial and otherwise (e.g., Thomas Paine, abolitionism, Progressive era social reforms, etc.).

Working from several sociological studies, Alcoff demonstrates that whiteness is already changing significantly and that the transformations she’s calling for may already be underway.

“In some cases, the turmoil in white subjectivity and embodied existence, and the incoherence of an alienated consciousness, produces a genuine disaffection from white supremacy, even if occurring in confused, inchoate form. But there is without a doubt a growing awareness about how whites are viewed by others as well as a significant decrease in white cultural domination.” (171)

Summarizing the work of Nell Painter, Alcoff lays out four trends in the current formation of whiteness in America: 1) Whiteness is not as salient nor as powerful as it used to be; 2) White privilege is more than ever mediated by other variables, such as class, immigration, sexuality, etc.; 3) White folks themselves are no longer expected a white-exclusive living space or work place; 4) Americans are creating many new kinds of racial categories, both official and popular, which undermine the coherence of whiteness (171-4). “I would note here,” she adds, that these are trends and not, alas, consolidated achievements with universal scope, but they are significant nonetheless.”

This all gives some hope and optimism to her argument, making room for white people who are seeking to escape the history of whiteness to maybe unclench their fists from color-blindness and embrace a different way forward. This is but one of many ways that Alcoff takes whiteness seriously, but as a potential social good rather than a permanent marker of the past. Perhaps in ways that I’m not (yet) willing to do, she respects people for whom whiteness is a salient and meaningful identity category while also insisting that they must change its contents. “The solution will not be found,” Alcoff writes, “in a flaccid universal humanism, nor in a pursuit of white redemption, nor in a call to a race-transcendent vision of class struggle” (204). Creating for euro-Americans an unglorious whiteness out of the history of slavery, Indian removal, Chinese exclusion, and the invasion of the Philippines holds out a kind of promise to help us white folks, as Alcoff concludes, “fac[e] the truth about who we are, how we got here, and then developing an offensive strategy for achieving a future in which we can all find a place.”

  1. proformsbee permalink

    A few further thoughts:

    Alcoff makes an argument that there is both the overarching whiteness and the broad particulars of difference within whiteness. I find that to be, uh, true…but what I can’t quite get to, with her, is that there is anything to the overarching “whiteness” *other* than white supremacy and the myth of white vanguardism. But she does lay out her evidence and I am taking it seriously. What I end up with, though, even if I follow and accept her evidence, are two problems:

    1) if there is no whiteness outside of its racist content, then what do we do with all the actions of “white people” that transcend local and ethnic boundaries?

    2) if such larger “white” actions, habits of mind, etc., exist, is it worth claiming them for “whiteness”? Might it not be better to construct an overarching Americanness that would be open to all groups, and allow “whiteness” to dis-integrate into its particularities and localities?

    The issue of the diversity of whiteness and its historical marker as “universalness” or more specifically in the U.S., “Americanness,” is that anti-racist politics would seem to demand that all aspects of “white” culture(s) be open to all people of color. For Alcoff, this creates a problem that she wants to preserve a “whiteness” for which there is no ethical way to draw boundaries around it, to say “this is white.” In other words, if we keep whiteness as a salient category, we end up with a category that has no means to actually maintain itself over time without reconstituting racism. Conversely, for my argument to dis-integrate whiteness, we end up with the problem of the existence of “Americanness,” and “white” people’s identitifcation with Americanness. What of, for example, the millions of people who do not have a meaningful social, interactive relationship to a sub-white identity? If they are “just American”, but so is everyone else, then what kind of identity is created and does it open the U.S. up to a new kind of domination?

  2. Thanks for this review! I’d like to hear more of the detail of your criticisms glossed early on, but I appreciate the perceptive sum of the book. I think the bulk of my argument against eliminatvism is on a) its impossibility any time soon, which then just makes it a cover for avoidance, and b) the mistaken essentialism behind the idea that this particular racial formation is fixed. What to do from here is the hardest question, but I’d suggest we need to find a way to talk with and to the white poor and workers supporting Trump, not just skip over their identity in a talk about ‘the American people’ as the Democratic Party does, but speaks to them as white people. That’s what eliminatvism makes impossible. Anyway, thanks again.
    Linda Martín Alcoff

    • proformsbee permalink

      Whoa! I’m a bit star-struck. My critiques aren’t huge and don’t really detract from your overall argument, so I didn’t want to overemphasize them in the review. The first one about the misapprehension of the social science of race is a more inside baseball / grad school seminar kind of thing that would be fun to banter about for us nerds, but probably not of much interest to anyone else.

      My other concern is a bit more pressing to me. I’ve thought for a long time that it would be better to take the diversity already existing within the large group of white people and focus identities of people of european descent into more careful categories. I come from a working class and poor rural background myself, with my father and family slowly rising into the middle class more or less thanks to the GI Bill as I grew up. I’ve been thinking a lot more about your arguments for the reconstitution of whiteness, and most recently have been reading a lot about the white underclass in preparation for a course I’m teaching in the fall, and especially watching the Trump campaign, I’ve become more friendly to the idea of, at least for the moment, working to reformulate whiteness as such. My experience as a gay man, growing up among white people in a rural religious context, has perhaps separated my own experience such that I do not see any value in whiteness as an identity per se, even though I have family and friends who do. Being in a crowd of white people, for me, feels dangerous, not homey. So perhaps because I myself don’t feel a white identity in any kind of salient way, while also being very aware of how I benefit from my obvious whiteness, it just has always seemed that breaking whiteness down into smaller parts would be the way to go. Even politically, watching Trump pander to the (very justified) anxiety of the poor and working white underclass makes me wonder how different this election would be going if “whiteness” were not a thing, if the white underclass didn’t identify upwards BECAUSE of their racial identity, how many more political problems could we more effectively address? It’s a bit of a cliché, but in many ways both cultural and economic (as you note in your book) poor whites have more in common with poor blacks than they do with middle class whites. Yet whiteness, even a revised whiteness as you propose, prevents that very necessary coaltion from forming.

      I do not mean to say that we should move toward a class-based identity for white folks (although that is a piece of it), but that I don’t think your solution (which I’m really favorable toward) would open whiteness up enough to allow poor white folks to identify with, see what they share with, and form cultural and economic coalitions and bonds with book black and latino folks.

      In other words, I think your ideas would go a long way to solving the white racism problem; but not so far in helping us address other social problems, especially class. I also agree pretty strongly with Jeffrey Sach’s recent argument that the left doesn’t pay enough attention to the real social problems that are created by immigration, because we are generally pro immigration. The kinds of cultural tensions and conflicts that arise from the loss of cultural social spaces as new people come in are real and come largely from the kinds of identities I think you describe in your book. I think that breaking down whiteness to “right-size” it into a constituent part among many goes a long way toward curbing xenophobia, but leaves in place the social problems that arise from people of different cultures living in close proximity. In some ways these are normal problems of a pluralist democracy; but in very real ways, we could conceivably still end up with xenophobia and anti-immigration reactionary white people even WITH a reformulated, right-sized whiteness, precisely because such a move doesn’t in and of itself solve the problems that arise from pluralism as such.

      You’ll excuse, hopefully, my somewhat gestural comments here, as a blog is a difficult format from which to have a good detailed discussion. Thanks again for taking the time to respond.

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