Feminism and the Subtext of Whiteness: Black Women's Experiences as a Site of Identity Formation and Contestation of Whiteness

By Yancy, George | The Western Journal of Black Studies, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Feminism and the Subtext of Whiteness: Black Women's Experiences as a Site of Identity Formation and Contestation of Whiteness


Yancy, George, The Western Journal of Black Studies


In a racially imperialist nation such as ours, it is the dominant race that reserves for itself the luxury of dismissing racial identity while the oppressed race is made daily aware of their racial identity. It is the dominant race that can make it seem their experience is representative. - bell hooks

O ye daughters of Africa, Awake, Awake, Arise! No longer sleep nor slumber.... Show forth to the world that ye are endowed with noble and exalted faculties. - Maria Steward

In the light of the influence of postmodernist and social constructionist thought, it has become fashionable to thematize one's location right from the start, to "fess up," as it were. This process of disclosing one's location is consistent with the logic of "positionality." On this score, stating one's position functions to signify an awareness that one's theorizations and knowledge-claims are mediated relative to where one stands. We must properly historicize and contextualize our epistemological claims. This awareness places in critical relief the assumption that thinking takes place sub specie aeternitatis. As Joe L. Kincheloe and Shirley R. Steinberg have argued, "Positionality involves the notion that since our understanding of the world and ourselves is socially constructed, we must devote special attention to the differing ways individuals from diverse social backgrounds construct knowledge and make meaning" (Kincheloe, Steinberg, Rodriguez and Chennault, 1998, p.3). Concerning this concept of positionality, Black feminist Patricia Hill Collins relates a story where she asked her students to assess a Black male scholar's critical analysis of Black feminism. She writes that her students requested "data on dimensions of his personal life routinely excluded in positivist approaches to knowledge validation, they invoked concrete experience as a criterion of meaning" (Collins, 1991, p.218).

Hence, as a raciated Black male, I am interested in how whiteness often goes unmarked, how it assumes to speak with universal authority and truth. Indeed, I am existentially, racially, and politically invested in how whiteness functions. Within the context of this paper, therefore, I will briefly explore the structure of whiteness, showing how this structure has historically functioned within the feminist movement, thus excluding Black women's experiences as valid media through which identity is formed, and then go on to delineate Black women's experiences as a site of resistance, semiotic reconstruction, identity formation and transformation. I will also say something about what underwrites Black women's "experiences" so as to avoid the implication that such experiences are free-floating or devoid of concrete historical context.

The Structure of Whiteness

The recent plethora of work done in the burgeoning field of "white studies" has made an effective contribution toward demonstrating how whiteness assumes to think and to speak for the entire world. Despite postmodernist and deconstructionist emphasis on locating meaning within a system of differences, whiteness attempts to transcend differences, constituting itself as the transcendental signified. In short, whiteness irrupts difference and attempts to fix reference or meaning around its raciated (white) center. Constituting itself as the site of absolute presence, whiteness functions as an epistemological and ontological anchorage. As such, whiteness assumes the authority to marginalize other identities, discourses, perspectives, and voices. By constituting itself as center, non-white voices are Othered, marginalized and rendered voiceless. Whiteness creates a binary relationship of self-Other, subject-object, dominator-dominated, center-margin, universal-particular, etc. Whiteness arranges these binary terms hierarchically, where the former term is normatively superior to the latter. As the presumed sovereign voice, treating itself as hyper-normative and unmarked, whiteness conceals its status as raciated, located and positioned. …

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