Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Critical White Studies

(Courtesy of Bill)Whiteness Studies: The New History of Race in America Peter Kolchin The Journal of American History Vol. 89, Issue 1 (posted by History Cooperative and Gregory S. Jay)

Suddenly whiteness studies are everywhere. The rapid proliferation of a genre that appears to have come out of nowhere is little short of astonishing: a recent keyword search on my university library's electronic catalog yielded fifty-one books containing the word "whiteness" in their titles, almost all published in the past decade and most published in the past five years.1 All around us, American historians and scholars in related disciplines from sociology and law to cultural studies and education are writing books with titles such as The White Scourge, How the Irish Became White, Making Whiteness, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness, and Critical White Studies.2

Although the term "whiteness studies" might at first glance suggest works that promote white identity or constitute part of a racist backlash against multiculturalism and "political correctness," virtually all the whiteness studies authors seek to confront white privilege—that is, racism—and virtually all identify at some level with the political Left. Most of them see a close link between their scholarly efforts and the goal of creating a more humane social order. 1 Whiteness studies authors manifest a wide variety of approaches. In many of the disciplines outside history, prescriptive policy goals assume a central position; writing on whiteness in education, for example, Nelson M. Rodriguez calls for the creation of "'pedagogies of whiteness' as a counterhegemonic act" predicated on the need to "refigure whiteness in antiracist, antihomophobic, and antisexist ways."3

Although such didacticism is far from absent in the work of whiteness studies historians, their focus has been on the construction of whiteness—how diverse groups in the United States came to identify, and be identified by others, as white—and what that has meant for the social order. Starting from the now widely shared premise that race is an ideological or social construct rather than a biological fact, they have at least partially shifted attention from how Americans have looked at blacks to how they have looked at whites, and to whiteness as a central component of Americans' racial ideology. In doing so, they have already had a substantial impact on historians whose work does not fall fully within the rubric of whiteness studies but who have borrowed some of the field's insights, concerns, and language.4 2

This essay represents an effort by a sympathetic but critical outsider to come to grips with this burgeoning field. I will deal primarily with historical literature, although I will refer to works in other disciplines, and I will pay particular attention to two books that are among the best and most influential of the whiteness studies works: David R. Roediger's The Wages of Whiteness and Matthew Frye Jacobson's Whiteness of a Different Color.5 Because the two books differ from each other in important respects, they reveal both the diversity within and the common assumptions behind whiteness studies, and they suggest some of the insights and potential pitfalls of the genre. My aim is to produce not so much a final evaluation of a finished project as a tentative progress report on a literature still very much in evolution
To Read the Rest of the Essay or Also check out:Whiteness Studies: Deconstructing (the) Race