Whiteness signifies a comprehensive social positionality within capitalist, racialized, patriarchal societies and is part of a structural equipment to dominate, categorize and order the world. The centuries-old system of racism has generated effective power structures and archives of dominant knowledge wherein whiteness is used to mark the so-called ‘other’ without marking the so called ‘self’. (Cf. Piesche & Arndt 2011, 192). Since the unmarked marker defines him*herself as ‘neutral’ and creates what is called the ‘norm’, whiteness remains unnamed in its processes to construct racialized ‘other/s’ and demarcates this void through explicit and implicit parameters. Bearers of whiteness benefit from discriminatory categories of differences which have been implemented as an increasingly globalized matrix of domination and norm/alization.1
In order to discuss socially established norms that cause or promote racism, critical whiteness serves as an important analytical category to detect and specify hierarchical constructions of whites and whiteness as ‘self’, ‘(f)actual’, ‘true’ in relation to constructions of Black people/People of Color and Blackness/Brownness as ‘other’, ‘bogus’, ‘invalid’. Critical Whiteness Studies (CWS) aim at shifting the focus back to the unmarked marker. Combining an analytic approach and a conceptual as well as methodological apparatus, they provide the possibility to analyze racializing processes in an intersectional manner by connecting the consequences of both epistemic and physical violence of categorical hierarchies acted out by white people.
Given the historical and regional background of CWS – an area of research that evolved as an offshoot from Black Studies and Critical Race Theory in the late 20th century mainly in U.S. academia – it is important to keep clearly in mind that critical whiteness first and foremost contains a Black collective knowledge of survival. From the times of enslavement on, Black people have shared and conveyed data, information and expertise “gleaned from close scrutiny of white people. It was not a way of knowing that has been recorded fully in written material” (hooks 1992, 338). It was, however, a crucial and fundamental knowledge about both the atrocities of colonialism and slavery, the power of ordering and categorizing, and the impact of racialization. The purpose of this knowledge “was to help black folks cope and survive in a white supremacist society” (hooks 1992, 338). At the same time it created a powerful foundation for theorizing the interconnections of race and social privilege, of “white ignorance” as a particular yet very influential group-based systemic miscognition, and of “white innocence” as a cultural paradox that describes the seemingly contradictory concurrence of denying racial discrimination and colonial violence on the one hand, and of acting out racism, prejudice and degradation on the other.2
As an intellectual intervention, a theoretical concept and a transdisciplinary field, critical whiteness has been pioneered by African American scholars and writers such as W.E.B. Du Bois (Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, 1920), James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time, 1963) and Toni Morrison (Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, 1992). Morrison’s critical effort, especially, created a boom in this field. As a writer and a Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University she called on her own academic discipline to understand that ‘race’ does not simply ‘occur’ when Black characters or respective authors are discussed, but rather functions as an overall narrative matrix shedding an unerring light on power structures, hierarchies, positionalities, and imaginaries in current Western societies.
For the last decade, Critical Whiteness Studies have become more visible in Western Europe. Unfortunately though, corresponding intellectual and/or academic developments are not particularly promising. In contrast to the U.S., where the field is deeply rooted in and informed by a collective experience of Black diasporic people, and as such always has been a vital constituent of activism and political practice, critical whiteness approaches in Germany were either quickly shrugged off as irrelevant for local contexts, misinterpreted as ‘elitist’ and ‘overly theoretical’, or simply overtaken by white scholars who prefer to actively exclude Black activist-scholars and activist-scholars of Color.3
This holds partly true also for white leftist and white feminist circles which is all the more regrettable since an intersectional focus on whiteness – one that interweaves race and gender and class and other discriminatory social categories with reference to Marxism – was offered already as early as the early 1980s. Black feminist thinkers such as Angela Davis (Davis 1981) and Gloria Joseph have shown “why racism must be addressed specifically and consistently as an integral part of any theory of feminism and Marxism” (Joseph 1981, 93; emphasis added). They demonstrated how the material conditions of slavery have determined not only specific relations between Black men and women within white Western patriarchy, but also the relationship of Black male and female individuals to labor within the U.S. post-/enslavement society.
It is necessary and challenging to re-read intersectional Black feminist notions on both whiteness and Marxism. The critical and complex analytical approach might not only bring up a lot of novel political topics, it could also significantly shift the focus of Marxist discussions, help us to de-universalize generalizing notions about, for example, ‘the capitalist world’, ‘the working masses’ or ‘the character of labor’, and to originate a field of political thought that is informed by many perspectives and shaped by inclusive epistemologies and practices.