Why We Need to Name Whiteness

In this blog entry, George Yancy, author of Look, A White! provides lessons on white privilege as he chronicles the shock, bewilderment, and anger his students experience as they realize just how pervasively race functions in our society and in their lives.

I am constantly reassured by my white students that racism is a thing of the past. They seem eager and proud to correct my apparent misunderstanding about the pervasive reality of racism. “We are not like our parents and grandparents. We live in a different world.” Some even occasionally make reference to our first African-American president as confirmation of our post-race moment and our “colorblind” ethos.

I teach courses in the area of critical philosophy of race at a predominantly white university. What I have discovered is that most of white students have not thought about race in any sustained way. Part of the problem is that whiteness constitutes what I refer to as the transcendental norm, that norm in terms of which only nonwhites are raced. In fact, most of my white students have no understanding of how white privilege works, how, because they are white, they are perceived as just persons and not as raced, and how they have come to adopt, uncritically, a metanarrative about success, economic mobility, and social respect that includes absolutely no reference to whiteness as a site of exclusive historical power, citizenship, and privilege.

Denying the reality and significance of race is not a problem for just my students. The problem is also prevalent in the profession that I have chosen. Given the often myopic view about what constitutes philosophy and what constitutes “genuine” philosophical problems, especially as dictated by philosophical gatekeepers who think that race is not a topic worthy of philosophical discussion, I often find myself fighting on two fronts. Pedagogically, I find myself confronted by hostility and defensiveness on the part of my white students, especially as they deny that race continues to matter. Professionally, I find that I am up against a certain abstract and purist conception of philosophy that relegates anything that has to do with the inchoate and messy domain of embodied social reality (like race) to sociology or anthropology. This is one way that philosophical borders are policed; indeed, this is one way of restricting what constitutes philosophical intelligibility.

Look, a White! performs, without hesitation, the act of calling whiteness out of its normative shadow. Naming and marking the rigid philosophical values and demarcations within the profession of philosophy, along with marking philosophy’s attempt to exclude certain topics and, by implication, certain non-normative white bodies, requires unambiguous forms of declaration: “Look, a white!”

The practice of naming reality is one way that I have been able to get my white students to give attention to the centrality of race within our country and within their everyday lives. After four weeks of critically engaging the topic of race, many of those white students who were initially skeptical about or who outright denied the relevance of race within our contemporary moment have experienced shock, bewilderment, and anger once they have come to see just how pervasively race functions in our society and in their lives. They all get to witness collectively not only just how mistaken they were about the centrality of race and racism, but they also come to explore the source of their naivety regarding race and racism.

To encourage my white students to see just how whiteness operates in their daily lives, I have assigned a journal project where they are required to keep a detailed record of experiences that have racist implications, no matter how vague or implicit. Many of them have been deeply saddened and disillusioned by the results. However, they come away from the project able to offer a more critically informed narrative about racism in their lives and in our country. The objective is to get them to name, in this case, instances of white racism, and to do so courageously: “Look, a White!

For example, one student wrote, “We were watching a television show and one of the characters who was black came on screen; one of my [white] friends then said, ‘My dad calls them coons.’” Another student wrote, “The first day back from Spring Break, we had a new…student move in. When [my] other floor-mates came and noticed this, one ran down the hallway (possibly inebriated) screaming, ‘There’s a nigger on the floor now, guys! Watch your stuff!’” Another student noted, “Today, I was hanging out in my room with three of my friends. We were looking back and enjoying a good laugh at old Myspace pages. My roommate was looking at her old friends on Myspace, and she goes: “Oh my gosh I had a black friend?!’” Lastly, another student wrote, “When I was on the elevator…I realized as a black man and woman walked into the elevator with me, I was clutching my bag close to my body and moved it to the shoulder away from them. I had no reason to clutch my bag other than the fact that they were black.”  Whether observing white racism in others or within themselves, my white students came to see and nominate reality in important ways that reveal complex layers of racism that are so mundane that they are invisible. I have had my white students complain that now they see the operations of race and white racism everywhere they go.

Look, a White! was intended as a gift to white people, an offering to encourage white people to name white racism (including their own) with as much honesty as possible. Yet, the book is not just about naming what is there, pure and simple, but it is about providing a critical framework for recognizing that there is something there to name at all.

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