In light of recent events I’ve been reflecting on the nature of “whiteness.” I’m sure very few (if any) of these thoughts are remotely novel, but I’m finding this helpful, particularly when thinking about what exactly it might mean to speak of privilege. Here I want to tackle the notion of whiteness hermeneutically – in terms of how people interpret the world and their experiences. It seems any reflection on whiteness can be extended and applied to any other perspective from a place of privilege, i.e. maleness, straightness, etc. While I’ll say “Whiteness is…” I don’t mean that to be exhaustive. It of course means much more. Yet for this particular post:
Whiteness is the pre-critical presumption of objectivity, comparative normativity, and perspectival universality.
That is, whiteness is the presumption of non-bias and sound reasoning, along with the assumption that there is really only one (legitimate) perspective (which also happens to be the one “I” occupy). This assumption is the root of the belief that one occupies and discerns from the universal (or at least the only legitimate) locus of comparison.
Thus in one sense whiteness is a hermeneutical failure. By this I don’t mean that it’s the improper use or understanding of an interpretation but rather the failure to recognize that an interpretation is taking place at all. Whiteness is not a problem of employing a wrong or faulty hermeneutic, but rather the very lack of recognition that a hermeneutic is always already in play. It’s a failure to come to grips with the fact that all of us are situated and so, therefore, is our knowing.
Privilege comes not just by way of occupying a certain location in society; it’s often the opportunity to live comfortably amid the non-recognition, because of never having to consider it, that one is indeed situated at all. Whiteness is the perspective of one who occupies a (relatively) racially frictionless location. That is, to be white is to have the color of skin deemed normal, average, and ultimately that compared to which black or brown skin is other, different. Blackness is determined in reference to whiteness, which functions locus of comparative normativity. This is the truth behind Ralph Ellison’s assertion that whiteness is colorlessness and not a color or race in itself. Herein lies the core of white privilege: whiteness is the place of (socio-political) “racial neutrality.” To be white is to be someone for whom one’s own race is not a concern (in the Heideggerian sense), not a fact of one’s own existence, not an issue to think about, wrestle with, or even reflect upon. This is of course only possible because said person is never, or very rarely, confronted with the fact of his or her own race – and especially the fact of it being an obstacle.
Something like this is operative in the accusation of “race-baiting,” or “playing the race card.” Such accusations are absurd because they are always made from a place of privilege, of relative racial frictionlessness. Hermeneutically, then, this is an example of the worst kind of circular reasoning: it is a dismissal of the claim that race is a relevant part of an issue by those for whom race isn’t an issue. By presuming objectivity and the universal perspective, such an accusation is both the denial of one’s own situatedness and the denial of the concerns, claims, and experiences of others. It’s an attempt to de-legitimize otherness by refusing to accept it’s authentic existence. It seems to me such a move is intimately connected to the maintenance of power, both the power of presumed access to “what is really the case” and the power one would have to cede if convinced that the current state of things, which is most likely preferable to the person, is in some way oppressive to others.