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When is Whiteness Studies an (and not an) Anti-Racist project?

2. This difficulty might explain my reluctance to embrace whiteness studies as a political project, even in its critical form. At the same time, I am aware that we can construct different genealogies of whiteness studies, and our starting points would be different. My starting point would always be the work of Black feminists, especially Audre Lorde, whose book Sister Outsider, reminds us of exactly why studying whiteness is necessary for anti-racism. Any critical genealogy of whiteness studies, for me, must begin with the direct political address of Black feminists such as Lorde, rather than later work by white academics on representations of whiteness or on how white people experience their whiteness (Frankenburg 1993, Dyer 1997). This is not to say such work is not important. But such work needs to be framed as following from the earlier critique. Whiteness studies, that is, if it is to be more than ‘about’ whiteness, begins with the Black critique of how whiteness works as a form of racial privilege, as well as the effects of that privilege on the bodies of those who are recogised as black. As Lorde shows us, the production of whiteness works precisely by assigning race to others: to study whiteness, as a racialised position, is hence already to contest its dominance, how it functions as a ‘mythical norm’ (1984: 116). Whiteness studies makes that which is invisible visible: though for non-whites, the project has to be described differently: it would be about making what can already be seen, visible in a different way. -Sarah Ahmed from: “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism” (Borderlands, Vol 3:2, 2004.

The above is from Sarah Ahmed’s essay, “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism” (Borderlands, Vol 3:2, 2004. It is a wonderful essay that my friend Jennifer made me aware of (thanks Jennifer!) . Her abstract states:

This paper examines six different modes for declaring whiteness used within academic writing, public culture and government policy, arguing that such declarations are non-performative: they do not do what they say. The paper offers a general critique of the mode of declaration, in which ‘admissions’ of ‘bad practice’ are taken up as signs of ‘good practice’, as well as a more specific critique of how whiteness studies constitutes itself through such declarations. The declarative mode involves a fantasy of transcendence in which ‘what’ is transcended is the very ‘thing’ admitted to in the declaration (for example, if we are say that we are racists, then we are not racists, as racists do not know they are racists). By investigating declarative speech acts, the paper offers a critique of the self-reflexive turn in whiteness studies, suggesting that we should not rush too quickly beyond the exposure of racism by turning towards whiteness as a marked category, by identifying ‘what white people can do’ , by describing good practice, or even by assuming that whiteness studies can provide the conditions of anti-racism. Declarations of whiteness could be described as ”unhappy performatives’, the conditions are not in place that would allow such declarations to do what they say. (Borderlands, Vol 3:2, 2004.

For me, “making whiteness visible” as a central point to whiteness studies in the West has always bothered me. I guess as a black racialized subject in the USA, myself and my family members have never known whiteness to be INVISIBLE, so it kind of annoys me. Then again, when it’s presented this way (“invisible) it makes it as if the audience for whiteness studies are those white racialized subjects who are unaware of whiteness; the audience is not “me.”

Ahmed is right, at the end of point 2 of her essay, when she speaks of naming whiteness through a different type of language. My literary work is about how to make whiteness visible to WHITES, through a language that is “comfortable” to the white audience, versus language that I am comfortable with. I literally have to translate my “angry black woman” emotions (it’s not really “angry”, but that’s how I have been constructed as) into formal and non-threatening language. I’ve always known about whiteness, always tried to talk about it duringK-12 and in undergrad at Dartmouth College, but I used “my” language and not the “formal” or “comfortable” language of the white middle-class college educated racial status quo. Not using this language has always gotten me into trouble. When I was 15 years old, I told my white English teacher that I couldn’t understand Grapes of Wrath and how I was supposed to sympathize with the protagonist. After all, he was singing a song that started off with, “I spied a nigger,” and I simply couldn’t stomach it (hard to read when you’re the only black girl in an entire school system). Her response to me was that I was not “sophisticated” enough to understand the language of Steinbeck (how insulting).

Currently, I am a PhD student. I tell people I’m doing critical race and whiteness studies, as it relates to food.  But seriously, I’m NOT at UC Davis to really learn about whiteness. I have viscerally known it since I was a young child. I’m in graduate school getting my PhD to learn how to speak about whiteness (more specifically, how it manifests in vegan food politics), using the language of the “master” so I don’t “upset” or “anger” the white folk. It’s a tough line to dance on and I often feel like I am a “sell-out” because I put so much time and energy into trying to prove to the white racial status quo that whiteness is a horrible “unnamed” problem in the USA. I’m pretty much writing a dissertation to prove that black female vegans have always been aware of this thing called whiteness (as well as various forms of racism and colonialism) and it clearly manifests in their entry into, and praxis of, vegan activism.

Collectively, the black women vegan activists I have chosen to study are creating knowledge systems that speak against/to the white middle class [vegan] norm. I am writing this dissertation because for the last 5 years, I have received numerous emails and blog posting from white identified people who are quite irate and annoyed that I am attempting to name whiteness within veganism. Those who are not directly irate or annoyed with me simply write, asking, “What does race have to do with veganism?” Except for one black identified 14 year old girl from the USA, I have never received such questions (or rather, inquisitions) from racialized non-white minorities. Every other day, I am asking myself if my dissertation work is really anti-racist project or is it just a project catering to the emotions of white middle class vegans who claim to not “get it”? How can I shift my project away from this direction? Or, should I be shifting it at all?

If you have a chance to read Ahmed’s essay, let me know what you think. I’m particularly interested in those of you who are engaged in critical whiteness and/or anti-racist studies scholarship in White western academy.

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