Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Tapping Philosophy Whitewashed

White People and Whiteness

What does it mean to be a white person today? What sorts of assumptions are implicit within the term "white people"? Is there a homogenous body of white people or are white people as disparate a demographic as any other? What sorts of practical phenomenon are people referring to when they use the term white privilege, white flight, and white man's burden, and are any of these terms still applicable today? Where is it a beneficial to be white, and where is it problematic, and what are some common characteristics of either group of locations? Is there a shared culture of white people, or is the term simply a biological, racial qualifier? Does the term "white people" have a normative dimension, and how would the historical situation of the term's use, including the person using it, affect its meaning?

It seems to me that the term white people, or whiteness if we want to lean towards an essentialist term, can be used various different ways. One way whiteness can be used is as a description of a person behaving in a way that is considered by their peers to be inauthentic to their race or culture. One recent occurrence of this was the criticism Barack Obama received before the election from some members of the black political community for not being "black" enough. It seems then that these criticisms define separate criteria for whiteness and blackness, which are defined normatively in opposition to each other. In other words, Barack Obama's lack of blackness is determined as whiteness. What problems arise when defining whiteness, and perhaps race in general, in both positive terms, and negative relational terms? I think particular attention should be paid to the negative relational use of whiteness as a normative absence, as this is arguably how it is most often implemented in contemporary political discourse.

I wrote this topic a while ago, and since then "stuff white people like" has written a book and gone on tour, and Barack Obama has been elected president, and was obviously embraced by most of the black political community, which we would imagine occurred because of his politics, and not necessarily the question of race. Bill Clinton was also embraced by the black political community, and a comparison of the two politicians might be helpful for examining a concept of whiteness or race in gneneral. If we like, we can turn this into a discussion about race in general, but whiteness is interesting because it can link us whiteness as a value standard of social and cultural capital. I'm open to alternative paths of discussion.

1 comment:

Francis Prior said...

I felt there was some discomfort over the topic of whiteness, and some contention over whether the topic had any philosophical content. As if to say, "what are a bunch of white people meeting at a pub on the main line going to have to say about their invisible white privilege? Didn't we go over this one during our freshman orientation? Aren't you really talking about racism and power structures? I'm offended by your implications that I am racist despite my best intentions, because you're taking me out of the discussion as an individual, etc."

I want to say that I appreciate your criticisms, and I made no claims to the philosophical essence of whiteness, as essentialism isn't generally my cup of tea. If the topic was too elementary, I apologize as well. Somewhere between the clouds of theory and the dirty materialism of whiteness there will be a happy medium of topics that people will enjoy. However, I would say that if the topic made you feel uncomfortable, that is probably a good thing. It's never fun to talk about the ways in which you've been the unintentional benefactor of exploitation.