From my book, Whiteness Fractured. Routledge. 2013. https://www.routledge.com/Whiteness-Fractured/Levine-Rasky/p/book/9781138250765

 

While we may be familiar with the examples of groups racialized as non-white, we are less likely to think about whiteness as socially constructed. However, whiteness also emerged in particular times and particular places the consequences of which are now clear… Insisting on the relations in power relations is necessary in maintaining consistency with the principle that whiteness is about more than skin colour or a group of people. It is primarily about the exercise of power, often practiced subtly or obliquely, but always with the effect of its construction—and exclusion—of difference. (p. 4)

 

While racialized scholars and observers have studied whiteness for at least a century, barring a few early books in the 1970s, it has been the object of study for white scholars only since the early 1990s. For example, while W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963), James Baldwin (1924–1987), Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960), Langston Hughes (1902–1967), Ralph Ellison (1914–1994), Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862–1931), and Richard Wright (1908–1960) were publishing their incisive observations of whiteness decades before David Roediger’s first book appeared in 1991 or Ruth Frankenberg’s in 1993. (p. 4)

 

I see whiteness not as a static identity category, but as a locus of power. Rather than the question “who is white?” we might ask “how is whiteness done?” That is, how is power practiced from the positionality of whiteness? (p. 5)

 

Denial of personhood is part of the cultural milieu in which whiteness operates. It is normalized. Yet the power to define Others, to set the parameters of inclusion into the circle of respectability commending mutual recognition as full participants in social relations, also establishes the terms of fundamental difference. It is ultimately an act of violence. (p. 16)

 

From a Foucaultian perspective, focusing exclusively on whiteness as nothing other than oppression for its victims obscures a different possibility; the negative effects of whiteness accomplish its interests. In its exclusion of otherness, whiteness accomplishes a relative “superiority”, a legitimacy in its distance from the difficult, an immunity from complicity in racism, a confirmation of merit and entitlement, a reproduction of its power, a pleasure in itself, a positive personal identity. It produces forms of knowledge, defines normalcy, delineates inclusion, accords status and value. It constructs new capacities and modes of activity. The practice of whiteness serves even as it destroys. In whiteness, we witness a power that “does more than say no.” It confirms as it disqualifies, always awarding its perquisites at the expense of the dominated. Other writers elaborate this point. Not only is there an ontological relatedness between white and Other (Dyer 1997; Morrison 1992), but also a sense in which the significance, meaning, and status of whiteness are intertwined with the relative significance, meanings, and status of racialized groups. Qualities adhering to whiteness arise from historical arrangements established in inequality. Ideological shibboleths of liberal democracy—freedom, equality, individualism—are contingent upon their reflection in the oppositional Other who is constrained, unequal, nondescript (Hurtado and Stewart 1997; Said 1979). Whiteness is more than the sum total of white privilege and white power; it is a phenomenon produced by and productive of social contexts of power. By mapping the technologies of power, Foucault broadens the purview of power as it inspires the career of whiteness. (pp. 22–23)

 

Whiteness silently imposes itself as the standard by which social difference is to be known. In refusing to know itself, it achieves a psychic distance from its effects. Normalization and white solipsism are accompanied by an innocence enabling an abdication of responsibility for its effects upon subdominant groups. (p. 43)

 

Evoked in the name of religion and science, and equivalent to “nature,” whiteness was light, goodness, truth whose qualities were intrinsic to it. It was protected from critique or even discernment. In the present, whiteness goes unnamed; without a name, a thing cannot be known, debated, or apprehended. It only can be…An example: Jesus Christ’s racial whiteness is taken for granted. (This “truth” is universalized if not universally held.) However, given his heredity, he could not have been racially white. Fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Christian artwork represents him as distinctly Semitic in race. Such artwork was censored by authorities, and then was supplanted by European painters who insisted on Christ’s whiteness. (p. 45)

 

It is apparent that the problem goes further than the amount or degree of attachments to racialized people. It means the creation of a psychic distance between a population identified as “us” and another identified as “them.” It expresses a lack of emotional investment—of care—in regarding this social arrangement as problematic, particularly as a factor in social injustices meted to racialized groups. (p. 54)

 

Defining “we” is premised on constructing otherness. The middle class knows itself through construction of and rejection of what it is not. Its significance, meaning, and status are intimately related to the significance, meaning, and status of those excluded from its ranks. Privilege, a normalized identity, status, rewards, dominance, and invisibility are contingent upon situating those who are different relative to these characteristics…the construction of difference confers sameness and legitimacy upon those who belong to the centre…Middle classness reinforces the effects of whiteness. (p. 116)

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