Academic journal article Communication Studies

Antiracism and the Abolition of Whiteness: Rhetorical Strategies of Domination among "Race Traitors"

Academic journal article Communication Studies

Antiracism and the Abolition of Whiteness: Rhetorical Strategies of Domination among "Race Traitors"

Article excerpt

In April 1997, the University of California at Berkeley hosted "The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness," the first academic conference in the United States dedicated to "talking about whiteness" (Kaufman, 1996). Organized by a group of Berkeley graduate students, the conference attracted a diverse crowd of Asian/Asian American, African American, Latino/Latina, and white academics and anti-racist activists as well as a fair amount of media attention (Goodman, 1997). Some people expressed concerns, similar to those raised above by Frankenberg, that the conference would turn into a white lovefest, while others assumed that the conference was yet another event in the ongoing backlash against ethnic studies in California (Goodman, 1997).

Conference co-organizer Matt Wray said, "The point of the conference is not to pile on more white guilt nor is it to celebrate whiteness. This is the process of trying to understand whiteness with the belief and hope that it might help us out of our current racial impasse (where) things seem to be so polarized and deadlocked" (Chao, 1997, p. A-7). In identifying this focus, the conference organizers, in accord with other whiteness scholars (see Projansky & Ono, 1999), position whiteness as strategy rather than an identity position. That is, the central concern with whiteness, and within whiteness studies, is not whiteness per se, "but what whiteness is so often used to do" (Projansky & Oho, 1999, p. 171). Thus, the conference organizers emphasized understanding the mechanisms that create whiteness, and its role in holding the current social structure together (Goodman, 1997). In addition, Michael Omi, a Berkeley professor of ethnic studies, said the conference was driven by a "firm anti-racist stance" (Goodman, 1997, p. A 16).

And yet, the conference and its stated goals raised a degree of skepticism in some quarters. This suspicion seemed to move in one of two directions: fear that already limited attention to, and resources for combating racism might be diverted to the study of whiteness, and doubt that white people could study whiteness in a meaningful manner. In an interview about his perceptions of the conference, Michael Eric Dyson, professor of African-American studies at DePaul University, spoke to the first concern:

There's a suspicion among African-Americans that whiteness studies is a sneaky form of narcissism. At the very moment when African-American studies and Asian-American studies and so on are really coming into their own, you have whiteness studies shifting the focus and maybe the resources back to white people and their perspective. (Talbot, 1997, p. 116)

Sharon Elise, an African American sociologist interviewed at the conference, spoke to the second concern when she pointed out to an all-white panel, "it concerns me that we have a panel of white scholars using white standards to investigate whiteness. To me, this seems somewhat naive" (as cited in Burdman, 1997, A7).

Dyson's and Elise's comments are not isolated ones in the ongoing discussion about whiteness studies. Considered a subspeciality within ethnic studies, the "new" whiteness studies has been both deeply criticized and heralded as a necessary next step in the struggle against racism, white supremacy, and white privilege within the United States (Frankenberg, 1997; Giroux, 1997; Jackson, 1999; Kinchloe & Steinberg, 1998). We position the term "new" within quotes to draw attention to the fact that scholars of color have written about whiteness and white privilege for at least 100 years (for example, see Baldwin, 1984; Dubois, 1920; hooks, 1990, 1992a, 1992b; Hughes, 1934; Jacobs, 1861; Morrison, 1992); however, as Peggy McIntosh notes, "it took white people to put [whiteness studies] on the map for white people" (as cited in Haynes, 1998, p. 10B). In other words, what's likely to be "new" about the "new" whiteness studies is that it is white people who are doing it. …

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