Beyond the Pale
A Pragmatist Approach to Whiteness Studies

Terrance MacMullan

Introduction: The Question of Whiteness Studies

Over the last ten years the body of scholarly literature on whiteness has grown immense.  Where whiteness had only been occasionally discussed within the wider context of race studies, it has since become a veritable cottage industry within the humanities. This unprecedented growth has lead a number of scholars to raise a series of meta-questions about whiteness. While leading scholars in whiteness studies, such as David Roediger, Noel Ignatiev, and Ruth Frankenberg, are concerned about the social construction of whiteness, other scholars, such as Henry Giroux, Homi Bhabha, and Robyn Weigman, look upon the field of whiteness studies itself with a critical eye.[1]

Their concerns fall roughly into two categories. First, some are concerned about the timing of whiteness studies’ advent. It is peculiar to them that just when multicultural curricula are gaining a hard fought toehold within the academy, the study of whiteness becomes the hot new topic. They are troubled that whiteness studies might undermine critical pedagogical programs designed to correct the university’s Eurocentric myopia by thematizing European culture and history. From this perspective, whiteness studies seem ill timed at best and reactionary at worse.

A second, related concern about whiteness studies has to do with victimhood. In "Whiteness Studies and the Paradox of Particularity" Robyn Wiegman argues that many scholars of whiteness seem intent on legitimizing the idea of white victimhood, either in terms of class or race discrimination.[2] This concern is made more pressing by the persistence of ‘angry white male’ backlash, a reactionary movement that started in the 1980’s and is characterized by figures like talk show host Rush Limbaugh and white nationalist politician Pat Buchanan who attempt to "rewrite the politics of ‘whiteness’ as a besieged racial identity."[3] In this context, whiteness studies might muddy the waters of race analysis in a way that makes it hard, if not impossible, for anti-racist theorists to convince white folk that there is such a thing as systematic white racism.

            However, despite these concerns about the efficacy of whiteness studies, this field of study emerged to serve an important, liberatory purpose. Over the last half-century, notable scholars of race have argued that white people would continue to deny or ignore systemic racism until they studied whiteness in its particularities. bell hooks, who was writing about whiteness long before its recent vogue, while speaking of the problem of the "native informant" (where students of color are asked to report on racism to predominantly white classrooms) in Teaching to Transgress says:

it is … crucial that "whiteness" be studied, understood, discussed – so that everyone learn that affirmation of multiculturalism, and an unbiased inclusive perspective, can and should be present whether or not people of color are present.[4]

To this we can add Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, a landmark in American literary criticism that displaced the white male from his traditional position as literary subject to an object of literary criticism. In it Morrison asks:

What parts do the invention and development of whiteness play in the construction of what is loosely described as "American"? If such an inquiry ever comes to maturity, it may provide access to deeper readings of American literature – a reading not completely available now, at least, I suspect, because of the studied indifference of most literary criticism to these matters.[5]

We could even point decades further back to works by James Baldwin and W.E.B. Du Bois, both of whom urged white folk to get on with the work of understanding their own racialized history. 

            It would seem that we are faced with something of a paradox. The giants of race studies called for the study of whiteness as one of many necessary steps towards the eradication of racism. Yet whiteness studies, the nascent field of study designed to respond to these very concerns, is already something of an enfant terrible that threatens to undermine anti-racist curricula. Accepting that this field is both problematic and a potentially important part of liberatory praxis, I will identify and critique the two dominant approaches to whiteness studies, preservationism and eliminativism, and then argue for a currently unrepresented approach to whiteness studies that draws on the works of W.E.B. Du Bois and John Dewey.

            Preservationism, which can either be white supremacist or anti-racist, is inadequate in that it treats whiteness as a permanent physical feature of human existence in light of scientific findings that deny the category any biological foundation. Anti-racist preservationism, which might not be committed to the idea of a transhistorical, biologically grounded idea of whiteness, still faces the problem of describing an anti-racist version of the very category upon which American racism is based. Conversely, the eliminativist position allies itself with the scientific studies that cast grave doubt on preservationist projects, but nonetheless runs afoul recent changes in how Americans think about race. In particular, an eliminativist approach to whiteness studies risks adding to the post-Civil Rights Movement myth that racism is over and that any mention of race is a form of invidious racism itself.

The alternate approach to whiteness studies advanced here is termed white reconstruction in acknowledgement of Du Bois and, to a lesser extent, Dewey. First, it is an explicit reference to Du Bois’ 1935 Black Reconstruction in America: still one of the greatest works of whiteness studies scholarship for its recognition that in order to solve the problem of white supremacist violence we must first recognize that whiteness is not an ahistorical, biological essence, but instead a "sort of public and psychological wage" that is paid to European Americans.[6] Second it is a reminder of Dewey’s claim that unfit habits of action (whiteness, I will argue, being one example) cannot simply be jettisoned; they must instead be reconstructed into more fortuitous patterns that place people and communities in greater harmony internally, with each other, and their environment.[7] This approach is indebted to scholars who recognize the construction of race as well as its role in maintaining systems of oppression, but nonetheless refrain from urging the elimination of race as the optimal response to the problem of racism.[8]

Approaches to Whiteness Studies

Most scholarship on whiteness can be organized into one of two categories, according to motivation. The first group envisions whiteness studies as part of a liberatory process of breaking down hierarchies organized along axes of gender, sexuality, physical ability, class, and race.[9] For them, whiteness studies is an attempt to identify and eradicate the ways that whiteness still gives white people a myriad of unjust economic, social, and cultural advantages.

A second group works from a very different set of concerns. Where the above theorists are motivated by liberatory concerns, these theorists, whose study of whiteness is motivated by defensive concerns, treat whiteness as an ahistorical and biologically superior race whose survival (and legacy of Protestant Christianity, American nationalism, male dominance, and heterosexuality) is threatened by multiculturalism and affirmative action programs.[10] The primary spokesperson for this loose confederation of Southern of white men is Jared Taylor, whose book Paved with Good Intentions assaults affirmative action as an attack on white America and claims, "unless [white men] defend our racial interests and put them first, we will disappear."[11] Also of note is Samuel Francis, a columnist for the Washington Times, who Chip Berlet and Margaret Quigley identify as one of the most mainstreamed proponents of white nationalism; they cite his claims that multiculturalism is but an attempt to "wipe out traditional White, American, Christian, and Western culture" and his suggestion that in order for the white race to survive, white Americans "need to kick out the vagrant savages who have wandered across the border, now claim our country as their own, and impose their cultures upon us."[12] Finally, we can add Paul C. Roberts and Lawrence M. Stratton, the authors of The New Color Line, who can only find a historical parallel to the madness of our current, perilously multicultural society in the Nazi Reich, claiming that "attacks on white heterosexual males … parallel those used by Nazis against Jews."[13]

In addition to categorizing whiteness studies according to motivation, we can also bifurcate the field according to approach. One group, white preservationists, approaches whiteness as a given racial category that ought to be maintained. Within the preservationist camp we can include those above who think multicultural programs oppress white males. However, we can also include preservationists who are motivated by anti-racist ideals and try to rehabilitate whiteness by separating it from white privilege. In this, more complex collection we can include the editors of White Trash, Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz, whose anthology offers "a critical understanding of how differences within whiteness … [help] to produce multiple, indeterminate, and anti-racist forms of white identity."[14] Similarly, the orneriest of their contributors, Jenifer Reeder, created a performance art persona ("White Trash Girl") as a strategic deployment of stereotypes about poor, white, rural women that, nonetheless, accepts whiteness as an unremovable racial identity.[15] Finally, the members of the Center for the Study of White American Culture (hereafter CSWAC), an independent scholarly group, are committed to ending white supremacist racism but also helping white people be proud of their race in non-hierarchical ways.

On the other side from the preservationists, we see scholars who approach whiteness as a socially constructed category and want it removed from use.  This group, which I will place under the lose rubric of eliminativists, contains the overwhelming majority of humanities and social science scholars who study whiteness, most notably Naomi Zack, Mike Hill, David Roediger, Theodore Allen, and Noel Ignatiev. Since they see whiteness as an artificial and problematic category, they variously argue for us to get past whiteness and develop non-racial or at least non-white identities.

Some eliminativists, like Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey, call their approach to race and whiteness the "new Abolitionism," and advance a neo-Marxist argument that whiteness is but a tool of false consciousness, and white people must "struggle to abolish the white race from within."[16] Other eliminativists, most notably Anthony K. Appiah and Naomi Zack, oppose whiteness by virtue of their wider critiques of Western categories of race in general. Appiah supports his eliminativist position by arguing that since there is no biological reality beneath discursive racial distinctions, it is not possible to use ‘race’ without committing a cognitive error. As he boldly claims in "The Uncompleted Argument: DuBois and the Illusion of Race:" "[t]he truth is that there are no races: there is nothing in the world that can do all we ask ‘race’ to do for us."[17] Since the idea of race lacks a biological referent, it is incoherent to continue using the term. 

            Naomi Zack’s advocacy of eliminativism rests on a wider base. Over the course of her many articles and books on the subject of race and mixed-race she offers several arguments for why we should eliminate the idea of race. In her first book-length treatment of race, Race and Mixed Race, Zack problematizes our collective use of race on grounds both biological and ethical.

The concept of black American race has no uniform factual or moral foundation, and when people are identified as racially black, they do not get the same treatment as people who are identified as racially white. So perhaps the time has come to reject the concept of a black American race, because the concept is coercive.[18]

Soon after, Zack leveled a multi-pronged attack on the idea of race in her article "Race and Philosophical Meaning," where she applied different theories of meaning to the common concept of race and finds that race fails all tests of meaning available.[19] As if this were not enough, she later develops an existentialist critique of the concept of race that maintains that using racial categories as part of one’s personal identity is an act of bad faith, and that to endorse the lie of race is to "impede one’s freedom as an agent."[20]

            When we overlap the different motivations and approaches, we see that the divisions within whiteness studies are complex. All of those who see whiteness as under attack from P.C. thugs also see whiteness as a permanent racial category. Similarly, all those who see whiteness as constructed study it as part of the process of ending racism.  However, some who see whiteness as a permanent feature of the world are nonetheless committed to ending white privilege. When we look at white preservationism and eliminativism through a pragmatist lens we will see that both approaches reveal aspects of raced experience that must be part of any viable approach to the problem of racism, but are nonetheless problematic. After offering a sympathetic critique of these two approaches, this essay will strive to mark a potential alternative that preserves the value of each approach while steering clear of their respective flaws.

A Pragmatic Critique of Whiteness Studies

            I will omit any deep engagement with the white preservationists who participate in whiteness studies in order to defend the white race against liberal attack, and will instead focus on the more worthwhile issue of how to reconcile different liberatory approaches to whiteness studies. In so doing I do not mean to "write off" these agents: they remain a daunting and well organized force in American politics whose long-term approach, access to mainstream media, and deep pockets combine to make them a obdurate impediment in the road to social justice.[21] Instead, I suggest that even a cursory glance at the statistics of education, housing, unemployment, and, above all, criminal justice shows that white folks still benefit from the accident of our skin and that Indigenous, Asian, Latino, and African American people are subjected to continuing discrimination and we are still left with the case of those who want to preserve whiteness as part of their attempt to develop a "postsegregationist antiracist white subject."[23] Perhaps the most deft negotiation of this fine line is found in the work of the CSWAC as it strives to formulate an alternative to the two dominant ways that white people think of their racialization: white supremacist identity, or the more common race unconsciousness.[24] Their alternative "says that you can be white, intentionally, consciously and with some pride, and also be nonracist."[25] Their attempt to get white people to come to terms with their own racialization in a non-racist manner is laudable from the point of view of anti-racism. However, as much as we might appreciate this group’s candor, its approach is problematic when seen through the lens of Du Bois’s analysis of whiteness.

            The chapter titled "The Souls of White Folk" from his 1920 publication Darkwater gives us one plain reason as to why we should not use whiteness studies to develop a non-racist conception of whiteness: whiteness is a double lie. Whiteness is first a lie in the basic sense that it is not what it purports to be: a naturally occurring and superlative branch of the human family tree. Instead, Du Bois points out that "[t]he discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing, -- a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed."[26] Thus, the problem is not merely that whiteness fosters a false sense of superiority, but that whiteness is itself false. This falsehood (i.e. the idea that there exists a biologically distinct race of white people who are inherently superior to non-whites) enables a series of destructive practices that Du Bois shows are the cornerstone of white American civilization: colonialism, militarism, and unrestrained capitalism.[27] This lie enabled white men who reaped staggering profits from the unspeakably horrible business of selling human beings from African civilizations to pretend that they were part of a respectable trade. It justified white savagery against indigenous peoples defending their homelands by framing the victims as savages themselves. It cast the 103 U.S. invasions of sovereign nations between 1798 and 1895, including Hawai’i, Japan, and Mexico, as necessary steps, in what Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts called, "a movement which makes for civilization and the advancement of the race."[28] Du Bois, looking behind these rationalizations, unveils whiteness as an inherently false concept that fosters unjust acts for the sake of material wealth and military power.

In response, anti-racist white preservationists committed to rehabilitating whiteness might say, "We agree whole-heartedly with Du Bois’s critique: this is exactly what we want white people to be aware of, so they will change the way they think about race and racism." However, despite the undeniably liberatory intent of people like Wray and Newitz, or the members of the CSWAC, Du Bois’s analysis casts grave doubt on the possibility of envisioning a non-racist version of a category whose primary effect was the creation of racism as we know it.[29]  Indeed, when he surveys the carnage of the Belgian colonies in the Congo, Du Bois says, "this is not aberration nor insanity; this … seeming Terrible is the real soul of white culture."[30] If it is true, as Audre Lorde says, that the "master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house" then Du Bois’s critique of whiteness makes us ask  "What are the chances that we will be able to dismantle the master’s house while standing inside it?"[31] Anti-racist preservationists hit the nail on the head when they say that we need to unlearn the white supremacist racism we have all inherited in this country in a way that maintains the possibility of a healthy and respectful sense of self-worth. I argue, in light of Du Bois’s work, that they miss the mark, however, by doing this while cleaving to whiteness as a cultural identity. The most useful question we could pose from this side of the debate on whiteness studies is "How can white people (that is, people who identify and are identified by others as white) unlearn racism and dismantle systems that offer whites unfair advantages while developing a cultural identity that is more felicitous within the context of America’s increasing cultural and ethnic diversity?"

This leaves the matter of the eliminativists, whose response to whiteness flows from the recognition that whiteness is a fraudulent and dangerous category.  Eliminativists seem to stand on firmer ground than preservationists, as they can point to the all but total consensus among scientists that discursive racial categories fail to accurately describe human biology.[32]  Thus, theorists who urge us to abolish the idea of race (including whiteness) can level a kind of immanent critique against it: the ideas of race and whiteness supposedly describe pertinent, biologically grounded features that simply are not there (or at least not as cut and dry as are the terms). Nonetheless, I argue that, despite race’s taxonomical failures, eliminativism remains an inappropriate approach towards the problem of whiteness in light of how Americans think about race in the wake of the Civil Rights movement. While the abolition of whiteness along with other racial categories might be an appropriate long-term goal as we move towards what Zack has recently called "The Last Paradigm of Race," eliminativism is an approach to race that would have a negative effect on anti-racist projects in the current historical context.[33]

While the various laws passed because of the Civil Rights movement constituted a giant leap toward democracy, they could not reach down to the level of habits and attitudes that were formed over several hundred years of white supremacism. It is for this reason that some white Americans began to reassert their privileged status, but in a manner distinct from previous ages; tactics changed to adjust for the fact that the overwhelming moral force of the Movement had salted the earth where white supremacist ideology grew. Instead of storming the gates of public discourse with grand theories that illustrated the inherent supremacy of the White Race, whites advanced their interests through Trojan Horses. Where white people have historically perpetuated their privilege through explicit appeals to the myth of whiteness as a superior race, white people maintain their privilege in the post Civil Rights era by appealing to the myth that white supremacist racism is dead, and that all whites (save a recalcitrant, ignorant few) are not racist. Du Bois summed up the dominant ideology about race in the 1940’s by quoting a fictitious character called Roger Van Dieman who blithely informs Du Bois "Of course … you know Negroes are inferior."[34] In our time, we could imagine Van Dieman’s grandson, a white person raised in an atmosphere where the message of the Civil Rights Movement (in a sanitized and diluted form) is part of the national catechism, responding to, say, bell hooks’s Killing Rage by asking, "Why is she still so angry? Doesn’t she know that racism against Black people has been over for thirty years?"

The present invisibility of white supremacism is such an intractable problem because it enables white folk to perpetuate white supremacist values while simultaneously decrying them. Perhaps the starkest instance of this new white privilege is seen when white politicians advance programs that do not explicitly appeal to race or whiteness, but nonetheless shore up white privilege and reproduce historic patterns of white supremacist violence: the "War on Drugs" (waged almost entirely in Black and Latino communities), the government sponsorship of a prison/industrial complex that warehouses millions of predominantly non-white men, women, and children from urban areas while granting lucrative construction projects and correctional careers to predominantly white, rural communities, "English Only" campaigns that scholars in the field of race studies about the efficacy of race eliminativism anticipates the pragmatic, white reconstructive approach to race that focuses on the consequences that any proposed action is likely to have on lived experience. It would frame whiteness studies as an inquiry in the Deweyan sense: an attempt to resolve a problematic situation.[37] Race eliminativists want the same resolution as other liberatory theorists: for race to cease playing a deleterious role in our interactions. However, by responding to the fact that race fails to live up to its promise as an objective taxonomy of the human race by calling for its expulsion, they slip into what Dewey referred to as the spectator theory of knowledge: that reality is "out there" and we need to find out if our thoughts, which are "in here," in our mind, jibe with external reality.[38] In effect, they tell us that since race fails to jibe with scientific findings (since race really is not "out there" in the realm of biology and genetics) we should stop using it "in here," in the malleable realm of language. However, this cognitive mistake is not the heart of the matter; the problem, historically speaking, is not that Blumenbach, Jefferson, and De Gobineau treated a chimerical idea as if it were a physical feature of the world, but that this idea produced horrific consequences when introduced to the context European exploration and empire building. The current problem is not that most people are unaware of the fact that science rejects the discursive idea of race, it is that the detritus of the previous age still clutters our habits and behaviors.

Taking Dewey’s model of epistemology to heart, we recognize that though "whiteness" fails to correspond to human biology (and thus fails to live up to its prevalent discursive use), it still succeeds in directing human action in myriad ways. The fact that it organizes behavior in a detrimental way simply means that we have to analyze its current role within these interactions and reconstruct it so that it leads to more apt behavior. This pragmatist and interactionist model agrees with the eliminativist approach about the idea of race being bad science and unnecessarily contributing to human suffering (by virtue of white supremacist ideals and privilege), but withholds from urging the elimination of the idea of race as the best solution to this problem. This divergence occurs because a pragmatist approach to the problem of whiteness would be more concerned with charting a course of action that is most likely to resolve the problem of continued white privilege, paying close attention to the vicissitudes of the current situation, than with getting people to relinquish outdated ideals.

In light of the present racial problem – where white privilege not only maintains, but does so in a way invisible to most white folk-- the removal of race from our discursive practices appears to be a dangerous gambit: it risks the possibility of creating a new situation were racism exists (at the level of prereflexive habits and unexamined assumptions) but is all the more difficult to extract because the terms necessary to identify it are gone. Again, Zack herself aphoristically acknowledges the potential danger entailed in eliminativism when she councils "tigers have to be dismounted with great care."[39] This potential problem seems all the more likely in the present context where many white folks continue to defend the unwarranted privileges they garner due to the accident of being white in a society that’s very warp and woof are shaped by white norms, but in a rhetorically sophisticated manner that does not explicitly appeal to white supremacist ideals. 

At one point, Zack seems to open the door to this possibility of a non-biological notion of race when she claims "only pragmatic theories of meaning could render ‘race’ philosophically meaningful, although at the cost of the biological foundationalism upon which the folk concept of race purports to rest."[40] I think we find an example of this sort of non-biological, interactionist approach to race that guides a reconstructive approach to whiteness studies in one of Du Bois’s most famous passages found in his 1940 text, Dusk of Dawn. After explicitly rejecting the idea of discrete "inferior and superior races," Du Bois argues, with VanDieman, that race is instead a "cultural, sometimes an historical fact."[41] When asked, in light of his rejection of biological race essentialism, how he can still maintain that there is such a thing as a "black man," he famously replies, "I recognize [a black man] quite easily and with full legal sanction; the black man is a person who must ride ‘Jim Crow’ in Georgia."[42] Du Bois then, like eliminativists now, rejected the prevalent, biological explanation of race. I believe that he would disagree with racial eliminativists, however, pointing to the fact that race is real (or a socio/historical fact) because of its powerful impact on the habits and institutions that determine human interaction.

In this section I have tried to show that the two primary approaches to whiteness found in whiteness studies – preservationism and eliminativism – are, despite their crucial insights and analyses, problematic. Preservationism (both defensive and rehabilitative) fails to account for the fact that the idea of race (including the idea of a white race) has been orphaned by the scientific discourse that sustained it. Race has been framed over centuries as an antecedent and biologically verifiable system for categorizing members of the human race; members of the scientific community, however, have discredited the biological idea of race, almost unanimously. Liberatory white preservationists who may or may not be wedded to the idea of a biologically founded white race are nonetheless faced with the problem of trying to find a non-racist form of the category responsible for racism in America.

Eliminativists ally themselves with the biologists that cast almost insurmountable doubt on preservationists. Yet their method – the elimination of the idea of race –threatens to undermine their goal – the eradication of white supremacist racism and the establishment of a society free of invidious racial discrimination — when seen through the lens of an interactionist model of inquiry. This model asks us to look beyond race’s inability to accurately chart the varieties of human beings toward the likely effect of urging eliminativism within the present context: where white folk intent on retaining their positions of privilege treat any use or mention of race (especially those designed to redress historical white supremacism) as "reverse racism." In this light, eliminativism might not put racism behind us, as much as mute attempts to speak out against white supremacist racism.

Instead of treating whiteness as either an irreducible feature of the world or simply a bad idea that should be expunged, a white reconstructive approach would frame whiteness primarily as a habit of action. Here I do not mean habit in the narrow sense of an isolated, unconscious behavior. Instead, I use it in the broader sense, as when Dewey uses habit to describe:

that kind of human activity which is influenced by prior activity and in that sense acquired: which contains within itself a certain ordering or systematization of minor elements of action; which is projective, dynamic in quality, ready for overt manifestation and which is operative in some subdued subordinate form even when not obviously dominating activity.[43]

This would grant a great deal to the preservationists without falling into a losing battle with biology. It would accept that whiteness is real in that white folks still habitually order their experience according to white supremacist norms. Yet, whiteness is not "in the blood" as it were: these habits can, and must be, revised for reasons moral and practical. Reading whiteness as a habit would agree with the eliminativists that whiteness fails to live up to its old biological promise, but would take a reconstructive approach to the problem of racism that would focus on thematizing these largely unnoticed habits and the ways in which they still result in unjust situations. This way, white reconstructionism would avoid contributing to the myth that presently impedes attempts to make white people aware of their privilege: that racism, itself, has already been eliminated.

Right now, we are in a state of deliberation regarding whiteness studies; we have to walk through the different options as part of the imaginative "dramatic rehearsal … of various possible competing possible lines of action."[44] The best response requires a dialogue between the people who see the same problem and the same goal, but different paths to bridge the two. With this in mind, the remainder of this paper will outline an approach that tries to avoid the problems outlined above while meeting the overarching goal of whiteness studies. It is an approach that grows out of, not over, previous efforts to craft responsible models of whiteness studies. It says to liberatory preservationists that white people do need to critically examine their racialization, but also that the door needs to be open for them to develop (or reclaim) other cultural identities: with eliminativists it agrees that whiteness is a tiger best dismounted, but that we need to take more care to avoid its teeth.

Appalled to Action

The heart of the white reconstructive approach to whiteness studies that I suggest is to appall white people into action. To explain what this means, I need to connect the meaning of ‘appall’ to its root, and then fit it within the pragmatism of Du Bois and Dewey.

Educators engaging in a white reconstructive approach would first attune to the meaning of ‘appall:’ "to dismay, to shock." This jarring aspect of white reconstructionism would follow Dewey’s insight that inquiry (the kind of systematic and creative engagement necessary to solve a problem as deep seated as the one surrounding whiteness) is best motivated by conflict. When the dominant myth that protects white privilege is that "racism is over and white people can be victims of racism just as easily as Black or Latino people" whiteness studies would confront white folk with the persistence of white supremacism, for, as Dewey says in Human Nature and Conduct:

Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates to invention. It shocks us out of sheep-like passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving. Not that is always effects this result; but that conflict is a sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity (Human Nature, 207).

In so doing, this whiteness studies would continue Du Bois’s earlier efforts to correct white arrogance by showing whiteness "undressed and from the back and side."[45]

            By designing whiteness studies as the act of confronting students with the fact that white racism is far from over, pedagogues would be fostering the awareness of the ubiquity of white norms called for by the likes of hooks, Morrison, and Du Bois. However, by making this a disquieting effort, it would avoid the problems outlined at the beginning of this essay: that whiteness studies might drag university curricula back to traditional, eurocentric paradigms or enable whites to claim the mantle of victims of racism. The study of whiteness would be the gadfly that stings white people into recognizing a situation that is uncomfortable to discuss, and about which most white folk have a strong interest in remaining silent. In particular, white reconstructionism would shock white people into addressing three things; that whiteness is a socially constructed category, that white privilege still exists at a habitual level, and that whiteness (as a cultural identity) forecloses the possibility of developing richer relationships and identities.

            The first unsettling realization at the heart of a white reconstructive approach would not only make use of the meaning of ‘appall,’ but its linguistic root as well: the Middle English word "appallen" that Webster’s New World Dictionary tells us connotes "an unnatural whitening." It leads us to the fact that whiteness is a fabrication, albeit one freighted with decidedly real consequences for our lived experiences. In this way a white reconstructive approach would acknowledge the core of the eliminativist approach: that whiteness is not what white folk have said it is, and we are not stuck with it. It would start to reconstruct the identities of white folk by dismantling the pervasive sense that whiteness is a naturally occurring, ahistorical category.  While this first insight is common within whiteness studies, it is important not to minimize it, as this destabilizing realization enables the question "what should we do about whiteness?" and frames whiteness as a problem to be solved, not a burden people of color must thole. The first job of whiteness studies, then, is to foster the realization that whiteness is a pale: an enclosed space that marked who was white (and had to be treated as an end) and who was not (and could be exploited as a means).

            In addition to the social construction of whiteness, a white reconstructive approach would explode the myth that white privilege is over by showing that we still organize our experiences according habits that evolved within a white supremacist context. Whiteness exists in a habitual (rather than a consciously supremacist) form to the extent that our current activity cannot but be influenced by the centuries of overt white supremacism that came before. Whiteness, in this way, is a dynamic web of assumptions and behaviors that organize our experience in prereflexive ways. bell hooks, in her 1992 work Black Looks, gives us one example of many of how whiteness is a problem that adheres to habit when she says,

Even though legal racial apartheid no longer is a norm in the United States, the habits that uphold and maintain institutionalized white supremacy linger. Since most white people do not have to "see" black people (constantly appearing on billboards, television, movies, in magazines, etc.) and they do not need to be ever on guard not to observe black people to be safe, they can live as though black people are invisible, and they can even imagine there is no representation of whiteness in the black imagination, especially one that is based on concrete observation or mythic conjecture.[46]

Agreeing with hooks, I argue that the problem of whiteness maintains in terms of habits in that people in this country still resolve situations by appealing to ideas and frameworks that evolved within a context where white values were the norm and non-whites were denied either full citizenship or their very humanity. We see habitual whiteness in that Black and Latino people still look suspicious to police offers in ways that white people do not (thus giving rise to the unofficial, but very real infraction that Latino and African American activists call "D.W.B.: Driving While Brown or Black.") The fact that the police officer does not consciously subscribe to any white supremacist beliefs is beside the point; habits shaped within a white supremacist context still organize his experience of who looks like a perpetrator

A white reconstructive approach to whiteness studies would start the process of unearthing these telltale habits and thematizing their source. It would show what poet Adrienne Rich means when she says we are "born innocent and accountable:" innocent in that no one now living started the systems of white supremacism, patriarchy, homophobia, anti-Semitism, or ableism; accountable in that we all remain the vessels of these poisons until we actively empty ourselves of their taint.[47] As white folks are the ones who still benefit unjustly from these habits (not to mention the land, wealth, and education that white people accumulated during the age of legalized white supremacism and were able to pass onto present generations) the responsibility to extricate them is theirs. In the end, white people need to recognize that democracy will remain an unrealized promise until they take concrete action to undo the damage done by white supremacism like by encouraging multicultural and affirmative action programs, returning Native American sacred lands and artifacts, and honoring the Latino culture and people of the South and Southwest that thrived there long before Samuel Francis’s forbearers invited themselves across the border. 

            Finally, the approach to whiteness studies that I am suggesting would direct white people towards the loss involved in whiteness; not the fictitious loss about which affirmative action opponents bellyache, but the loss that Du Bois sees behind the brass-fronted arrogance of whiteness. This aspect would encourage white people to ask after what was let go when their ancestors became "white." Adrienne Rich gives us a sense of the damage done to those people who were convinced to break their ties to their past in order to better pass as white Americans.

The pressure to assimilate says different things to different people; change your name, your accent, your nose; straighten or dye your hair, stay in the closet; pretend the Pilgrims were your fathers; become baptized as a christian, wear dangerously high heels, and starve yourself to look young, thin, and feminine; … value elite European culture above all others; laugh at jokes about your own people; don’t make trouble; defer to white men; … be ashamed of who you are.[48]

Whiteness studies would shock white people into seeing that whiteness lacks a culture in the positive sense, and start a search for its replacement.

Culture comes from the Latin word cultus, which means, "to care for." At its heart, it has to do with growth: of crops (as in the word "cultivate"), or of peoples. Culture can be understood as a set of ideas, practices, and rituals that help human beings develop morally, intellectually, and spiritually. Whiteness, however, is a culture that does not do these things; indeed, it works in the opposite fashion. It is a culture in the apparent sense: it is made up of a set of rituals, ways, and traditions that define who we are: consumerism, militarism, and patriarchy. However, it is not a culture in the true sense of the world: it encourages no growth but economic, it fosters no progress but technological, it understands no triumphs save those won by force of arms. Whiteness studies need to find a way for white people to overcome the idea of whiteness, and develop (or perhaps reclaim) an identity that is more authentic, biophilic, and democratic.


            This essay started by drawing attention to the growing tension between scholars engaged in whiteness studies and those who question the validity, purpose, and efficacy of these studies. Rather than taking one side of the issue by saying that it is either a welcomed addition to university curricula or an unwelcomed guest at multiculturalism’s party, I suggest that we read this disagreement over the study of whiteness as evidence of its ambivalent potential. On the one hand, the act of studying whiteness might impede attempts to develop a truly transcultural learning environment that relies upon new paradigms like the ones outlined by Ward Churchill in "White Studies: The Intellectual Imperialism of U.S. Higher Education," or by bell hooks in Teaching to Transgress.[49]  On the other hand, the debate also draws our attention to the hope that by getting white folk in this country to look at our history "undressed and from the back and side" educators engaged in whiteness studies might foster in them the understanding that white supremacism still blights our society, that our society will not free of racism until white people actively dismantle their privilege, and that new (and ancient) horizons of meaning and identity wait just beyond the pale.

[1] For some of the best scholarship in whiteness studies see Allison Bailey, "Locating Traitorous Identities: Toward a View of Privilege-Cognizant White Character," Hypatia 13, No.3  (1998), Linda Martín Alcoff, "What Should White People Do?," Hypatia 13, No.3 (1998), Matthew Frye Jacobson, Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race, 2 Vols. (New York, N.Y.: Verso, 1994), Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1995), David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1991), Ruth Frankenberg, White Women, Race Matters: The Social Construction of Whiteness (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993). For examples of scholars suspicious about whiteness studies see Maulana Karenga, "Whiteness Studies: Deceptive or Welcome Discourse," Black Issues in Higher Education Vol 16, Iss. 6 (1999), Henry Giroux, "White Squall: Resistance and the Pedagogy of Whiteness," Cultural Studies, Vol 11, No. 3 (1997), Homi Bhabha, "The White Stuff," Artforum Vol 36, No. 9 (1998), Robyn Weigman, "Whiteness Studies and the Paradox of Particularity," Boundary 2 Vol 26, No.3 (1999).

[2] Robyn Weigman, "Whiteness Studies and the Paradox of Particularity" in Boundary 2 Vol 26, No.3 (1999): 115-150.

[3] Henry Giroux, "White Squall: Resistance and the Pedagogy of Whiteness" in Cultural Studies Vol 11, No 3, (1997):  377

[4] bell hooks, Teaching To Transgress (New York: Routledge, 1994), 43.

[5] Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 9

[6] W.E.B. Du Bois, [1935] Black Reconstruction in America:1860-1880 (New York: Freepress, 1998), 700.

[7] John Dewey, [1922] Human Nature and Conduct, in Middle Works, Vol. 14. ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983).

[8] Linda Martín Alcoff, "Philosophy and Racial Identity," Radical Philosophy. Vol 75, Jan/Feb (1996), 5-14, Paula Moya, "Postmodernism, "Realism," and the Politics of Identity: Cherríe Moraga and Chicana Feminism," in Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures, eds. M. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Talpade Mohanty (New York: Routledge, 1997), 125-150, Lucius T. Outlaw Jr, On Race and Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 1996), Judith Green, Deep Democracy (Lanham, MA: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999).

[9] Here we can place the works of Allison Bailley, Mab Segrest, Linda Martín Alcoff, Theodore Allen, Marilyn Frye, Adrienne Rich, Minnie Bruce Pratt, Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey (to name a few.)

[10] In addition to these defenders of whiteness (understood racially), we can more sophisticated, conservative theorists who also see themselves as defending American values against multiculturalism, but frame their argument in terms of culture rather than race. See Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), Arthur Schlesinger, The Disuniting of America  (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991), E.D. Hirsch, Cultural Literacy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), Dinesh D’Souza, The End of Racism (New York: The Free Press, 1995).

[11] Jared Taylor, Paved with Good Intentions: The Failure of Race Relations in Contemporary America (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1992) as quoted in Dinesh D’Souza, The End of Racism, 388.

[12] Chip Berlet and Margaret Quigley, "Theocracy & White Supremacy: Behind the Culture War to Restore Traditional Values" in Eyes Right!, ed. Chip Berlet (Boston: South End Press, 1995), 15-43.

[13] Paul Craig Roberts & Lawrence Stratton, The New Color Line: How Quotas and Privilege Destroy Democracy (New York: Regenery Publishing, Inc., 1995), 153.

[14] Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz, "Introduction" in White Trash: Race and Class in America, eds. Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz (New York: Routledge, 1997), 4.

[15] Laura Kipnis with Jennifer Reeder, "White Trash Girl," in White Trash: Race and Class in America, 113-130.

[16] Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey, "Introduction: a beginning" in Race Traitor, eds. Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey (New York: Routledge, 1996), 2. See also,  Race Traitor,  <>.

[17] Anthony Appiah, "The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race," in "Race," Writing, and Difference, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 21-37.

[18] Naomi Zack, Race and Mixed Race (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993), 165.

[19] Naomi Zack, "Race and Philosophical Meaning," in American Philosophical Association Newsletter on Philosophy and the Black Experience 91, no.1 (1994), 14-20.

[20] Naomi Zack, "Race, Life, Death, Identity, Tragedy, and Good Faith," in Existence in Black,  ed. Lewis Gordon (New York: Routledge), 105.

[21] For information on the political organization and funding of groups that organize to defend white supremacy and privilege, see "Theocracy & White Supremacy" by Chip Berlet and Margaret Quigley, and "Promise Keepers" by Russ Bellant, in Eyes Right!, ed. Chip Berlet (Boston: South End Press, 1995).

[22] Andrew Hacker, Two Nations, Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1992), Cheryl Harris, "Whiteness as Property," Harvard Law Review. Vol 106, No 8, (1993): 1710-1791, Lipsitz, George, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit From Identity Politics. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998).

[23] Robyn Weigman, "Whiteness Studies and the Paradox of Particularity," 135.

[24] Center for the Study of White American Culture, <http:/ />,1.

[25] Ibid.

[26] W.E.B. Du Bois, [1920] Darkwater: Voices From Within the Veil (Minneola, NY: Dover, 1999), 17.

[27] Ibid., 25.

[28] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: Twentieth Anniversary Edition (New York: Harper Collins, 1999), 299.

[29] For sources on the role of the idea of whiteness in the formation of modern American racism see Theodore Allen, The Invention of the White Race, 2 Vols. (London: Verso, 1994) and Matthew Frye Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).

[30] Du Bois, Darkwater, 22.

[31] Audre Lorde, "The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House," in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, eds. Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (New York: Kitchen Table, 1983), 99.

[32] The most recent support for the claim that the idea of race rests on sloppy pseudo-science comes from the controversial and epoch-making Human Genome Project (or HGP): an effort to decode human DNA. Speaking of just one of the many possible positive outcomes of the HGP, Dr. J. Craig Venter said that one of the purposes of this project was to "help illustrate that the concept of race has no genetic or scientific evidence," David Kestenbaum, "Genome Announcement, National Public Radio: All Things Considered, 26 June 2000,

[33] Naomi Zack, "Philosophy and Racial Paradigms," The Journal of Value Inquiry 33 (1999): 299-317.

[34] W.E.B. Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept in Du Bois: Writings. (Washington: Library of America, 1986), 656.

[35] Steven Holmes, "Race Analysis Cites Disparity in Sentencing for Narcotics," New York Times on the Web, 8 June 2000,

[36] For an excellent source on abuses of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, see Micheal Eric Dyson, I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Free Press, 2000).

[37] Dewey, [1938] Logic: the Theory of Inquiry in Later Works Vol. 12 ed. Jo Ann Boydson (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991), 108.

[38] Dewey, [1929] The Quest for Certainty in Later Works Vol. 4 ed. Jo Ann Boydson (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1988), xiv.

[39] Zack, "Mixed Black and White Race and Public Policy," Hypatia 10, No.1, (1995):130.

[40] Zack, "Race and Philosophical Meaning," 14.

[41] Du Bois, Dusk of Dawn, 665.

[42] Ibid., 666.

[43] Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, 31.

[44] Ibid., 132.

[45] Du Bois, Darkwater, 17.

[46] bell hooks, Black Looks (Boston: South End Press, 1992), 169.

[47] Rich, Adrienne, "Resisting Amnesia: History and Personal Life," in Blood, Bread and Poetry (New York: Norton, 1983), 145.

[48] Ibid., 142.

[49] Ward Churchill, "White Studies: The Intellectual Imperialism of U.S. Higher Education" in Since Predator Came (Littleton, CO: Aigis Publications 1995), 245-264.