Whiteness

Nicola Lauré al-Samarai and Peggy Piesche

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. 

References

Community Statement. 2015. “’Black’ Studies at the University of Bremen”. Berlin, Hamburg, Chicago. https://blackstudiesgermany.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/communitystatement_blackstudiesbremen_engl_undersgnd415.pdf

Davis, Angela. 1981. Women, Race, and Class. New York: Random House.

Eggers, Maureen Maisha, Grada Kilomba, Peggy Piesche, and Susan Arndt eds.. 2005. Mythen, Masken und Subjekte. Kritische Weißseinsforschung in Deutschland. Münster: Unrast.

Hill Collins, Patricia. 1990. Black Feminist Thought. Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York / London: Routledge.

Joseph, Gloria. 1991. “The Incompatible Ménage á trois: Marxism, Feminism, and Racism”. In Women and Revolution. A Discussion of the Unhappy Marriage between Marxism and Feminism., edited by Lydia Sargent, 91-108. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

hooks, bell. 1992. “Representing Whiteness in Black Imagination.” In Cultural Studies, edited by Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula A. Treichler, 338-346. New York/London: Routledge.

McIntosh, Peggy. 1988. White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies. Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College, Center for Research on Women.

Mills, Charles W. 2007. “White Ignorance”. In Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, edited by Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana, 13-38. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Piesche, Peggy & Susan Arndt. 2011. “Weißsein”. In Wie Rassismus aus Wörtern spricht. (K)erben des Kolonialismus im Wissensarchiv deutsche Sprache, edited by Susan Arndt and Nadja Ofuatey-Alazard, 192-193. Münster: Unrast.

Roediger, David R. 2007. The Wages of Whiteness. Race and the Making of American Working Class. New and Revised Edition. London/New York: Verso.

Wekker, Gloria. 2016. White Innocence. Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. Durham: Duke University Press.

Wollrad, Eske. 2005. “Wenn Schwarz-Weiße Bündnisse scheitern: Hintergründe und Herausforderungen aus Weißer feministischer Sicht”. In Weißsein im Widerspruch. Feministische Perspektiven auf Rassismus, Kultur und Religion. Königsstein/Taunus: Ulrike Helmer.

Notes

1] For white benefits see McIntosh 1988; for the matrix of domination see Hill Collins 1990, 225-227; for the historical formation of white working-class racism see Roediger 2007.

2] For more details see Mills 2007 and Wekker 2016.

3] For an inclusive approach within the context of CWS in Germany see the seminal anthology by Eggers et al. 2005. For problematic developments see Wollrad 2005. For recent trends and their discursive and structural entanglement in the German academia see in particular the Community Statement “‘Black’ Studies at the University of Bremen” which in 2015 addressed the all-white efforts to implement Black Studies without Black (German) scholars.

Biography

Nicola Lauré al-Samarai

Nicola Lauré al-Samarai is a historian and cultural theorist. Interested in Black and comparative diaspora studies, transnational feminism, critical museology and approaches of intercommunal/interdiasporic activism, she has published on aspects of Black German history, memory formation, cultural politics and matters of representation.

Peggy Piesche

Peggy Piesche is a literary and Cultural Studies scholar whose work is centered in Black European Studies. Her areas of research include Critical Race and Whiteness Studies, Black Feminist Studies, Diaspora and Translocality, and the performativity of memory cultures. She is also an activist-scholar and editor in and to the Black community in Germany.