whiteness is a project

Whiteness is a project, not a skin tone


The title for this post is borrowed from Edouard Glissant’s Carribbean Discourse via Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Global Transformations:

The West is not in the West. It is a project, not a place.

Trouillot stressed this theme in his graduate seminars and writings: power and how power is projected must be understood as a process, not as a thing, place, or entity. Seeing power as process means understanding history, contingency, and uncertainty, which means unpacking the monolithic reification that power attempts to project and claims to be. However, this does not make the process unreal or illusory. [Note: This post was written just before Trouillot passed away in July 2012–see In Memoriam, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, 1949-2012.]

This post began as an injunction to read Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is by John Scalzi. This piece started kicking around the internet in May 2012 (thanks to the Facebook BioAnthropology News group for the alert), and it’s worth looking at some of Scalzi’s follow-up commentary and the kinds of comments he deletes. Scalzi’s piece is smart, on-target, and is a much-needed update to Peggy McIntosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (1988, with many reprints). Scalzi correctly diagnoses that privilege is simply a stumbling-block word, although I suspect that the same people who get upset about the idea of white privilege would be just as upset by Scalzi’s reworking.

Still, Scalzi’s post is the kind of thing I wish I’d been able to write, or I wish some media-and-gamer-savvy blogging anthropologist would have written. At around the same time, a good portion of the anthropology blogosphere congregated for Adam Fish’s aptly-titled Anthropology’s Suicide? Intense discussion followed about something David Graeber may or may not have said. More on this below.

Meanwhile, Razib Khan at Gene Expression put up White supremacy and white privilege; same coin. It’s a very long post, and I am sympathetic to this extended historical treatment. Unlike many of the people who would get outraged at Scalzi, Khan knows a lot more about history and more about the idea of white privilege. However, Khan’s main point is “to bury white privilege, not deconstruct it.” His main evidence is how other groups have broken into the club, so to speak:

The Jewish example, and the example of Asian Americans, and the assimilation of many Latinos into the same catchall as white European ethnics a century ago, suggest the possibility that the whole paradigm of white racial privilege/supremacy is an illusion, or at least is ephemeral.

What Khan has done here is to turn whiteness and white privilege into a thing, a monolithic reification. Many people do this, whether as an attempt to project, solidify, and claim power, or as an attempt to critique, resist, and criticize. As a reification, whiteness and white privilege is of course easily buried. But if we see whiteness as an ongoing project or process, then different individuals and groups may enter into that imagination and projection of power. The outcome is contingent and historical, not given in advance. But while in a strict sense it is an illusion, it’s more like how in a strict sense money is an illusion or ephemeral. That doesn’t mean it isn’t real. (See also It’s Time to Stop Saying ‘Caucasian’ for a fascinating related discussion of how a term for people in the southern Urals became a race category, and thanks to DWP for a heads-up on the link.)

Update 2013: The term Caucasian came in for renewed scrutiny following the Boston Marathon bombings. See The wrong kind of Caucasian by Sarah Kendzior (April 2013) and Has ‘Caucasian’ Lost Its Meaning? by Shaila Dewan (July 2013).

Khan has said in a previous post that Reification is alright by me! It’s a point Trouillot might not have always disagreed with–Trouillot would talk about convenient reifications, and of the need to reify subsidiary ideas in order to concentrate on the concept being investigated. However, Trouillot would emphasize that often the main role of social science is to take a particular reification and reveal it as process. Returning to Trouillot on Glissant and the West:

In creating “the West,” the European Renaissance shaped a global geography of imagination. That geography required a “Savage slot,” a space for the inherently Other. Martinican author Edouard Glissant (1989:2) writes: “The West is not in the West. It is a project, not a place.” Indeed, the place we most often call the West is best called the North Atlantic–not only for the sake of geographical precision but also because such usage frees us to emphasize that “the West” is always a fiction, an exercise in global legitimation. That exercise sometimes takes the form of an explicit project in the hands of intellectual, economic, or political leaders. Yet most humans who see themselves as Westerners, aspire to become so, or criticize that aspiration experience the West in the form of a projection: the projection of the North Atlantic as the sole legitimate site for the universal, the default category, the unmarked–so to speak–of all human possibilities.

Thus, the West has never had a fixed content, nor is it an unchanging site. Its center moves from Rome to Lisbon, from Vienna to London, from Washington to Geneva, and from Venice to Grenada depending on the claims being made. It can absorb parts of Eastern Europe or Latin America, and more recently, Japan–not because of any feature common to these areas, but rather depending on who else is being excluded. As all default categories, the West as the universal unmarked operates only in opposition to the populations that it marks. (2003:1-2)

Substitute whiteness and white privilege for “the West”: a fiction, yes, but an ongoing exercise in global legitimation. Whiteness is a projection of power, not a phenotype. And on this point, Khan may be correct that rather than a globally legitimizing fiction, whiteness could re-emerge as a marked identity politics. Outcomes are uncertain, unpredictable, contingent–but permeated by power at every moment.

This brings us back to Graeber and Anthropology’s Suicide. The central accusation seems to be that Graeber has reified the Western anthropological theorist here and the ethnographic Other over there. But even if that were so–and as Graeber points out, reading to the end of his blurb seems to make it clear that it is not–it’s been part of basic anthropological training since well before Eric Wolf’s 1982 Europe and the People Without History to question such reifications. As it has been for many years, to claim that an anthropologist resurrects such reifications is indeed to pick a fight, and so it unfolds (see also Eric Wolf, Europe and the People Without History – Geography, States, Empires).

Scalzi’s blog gets so many visitors he seems to be able to afford a hosting service that starts at $15,000 per year. Gene Expression grabs a lot of readers and commenters. In retrospect, it was stupid of me to suggest to Discuss White Privilege a more innocuous title like DWP. As it turns out, discussing white privilege is not just salutary as an internal-to-anthropology exercise but vital for the anthropology blogging brand.

Update July 2012: Recent tweets and comments helped me revisit this post, which was written shortly before Trouillot’s passing, In Memoriam, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, 1949-2012. In the comments below, Bryce Peak very helpfully recommends Richard Dyer’s White: Essays on Race and Culture which includes an analysis of the often undertheorized religious element to race, and Thomas A. Guglielmo’s White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890-1945 which traces northern and southern Italian immigration differences. Thanks!

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