In February 2022 Christi van der Westhuizen and I ran a series of launch events for our co-edited project the Routledge Handbook in Critical Studies in Whiteness.
These events consisted of a series of panels running over three days. These panels covered the 6 sections of the volume and the Epilogue and involved most of the contributors to the volume.
At the first of these events Christi and I took the opportunity to briefly frame our way into editing the handbook and some of the key themes and issues for us.
The following is the script for my framing of how I come to the issues in the Handbook:
At the outset two things:
1) I am really proud of what we have produced together in this text it does much of what I fantasised about when making up my mind to work on the proposal invited by Routledge in 2018. (I am never quick – I now realise this is 5 years since.)
I am proud because the volume is:
a. Expansive, dynamic, full of voices of contention and compliment, bringing a really fresh take on what it is to be engaged in the critical consideration of whiteness. There are So many positionalities developed and it breaks some really new ground through putting these newer developments into conversation with the previous grounds of the field.
b. I fantasised about producing a book that I wanted to read, that I would learn from and be in conversation with myself for a long time to come. Maybe this is what all editors fantasise about …. Anyway, I think that Christi and I have achieved this together with the contributors.
2) I have a complicated relationship to being understood as someone who does work on whiteness and this relates to my fantasies and desires (necessarily) left unfulfilled through the production of this great text of ours.
These relate to the ongoing challenges posed by understanding whiteness as an enactment of power which is material, symbolic and affective which is at the heart of what I understand to be decolonial about the analysis of whiteness being developed in the Handbook.
a. Whiteness as a product of the fight between these different spheres – whiteness as achieved through - the use of the symbolic in an attempt to control the uncertainties produced through human materiality by way of the expunging of affect – the experience of being a ‘feeling-mind-body’.
b. The separation of these spheres is fundamental to racialisation, coloniality and whiteness itself.
c. The swinging of analysis between 'race and racism is all about white people’ locating the problematics of race and racialisation in white people and ‘speaking about whiteness and white people is a (violent) distraction to system challenge'.
I need to go way back to where this work started for me in the mid 1990s, to contextualise this:
What brought me to whiteness was an interest in power and in the relationship between personal and institutional power. The tensions I witnessed in the lives of people making up institutional(ised) spaces.
I had a very keen sense of categories of social power, structures and institutions and I was developing a keen sense of lived experience in institutional spaces. Much of this was enabled through social constructionist analysis of race.
But I was struggling for a language to understand the fractures of my own experience and of the experience of my family, friends, colleagues and travellers inside of the institutional space. (Nirmal Puwar might say - bodies out of place – from a different starting point, but in a related sense.)
The academic languages of race and racialisation (and perhaps in a different sort of way racism) felt too abstracted for me to understand this experience of fracture.
I have no doubt that this is because I am racialised as white.
So these narratives, these academic languages were not positioned as being about me. They were positioned as being about other people who are racialised.
So the ideas being developed in (critical) whiteness studies gave me a way into understanding my place in institutions:
- as someone who can wield power for the purposes of domination,
- but also as a someone who is produced through the curtailed experience which happens when we are practicing domination.
- as someone who is diminished, rather than expanded through domination.
- As someone who must arm themselves with understanding about those processes. (**hidden and denied knowledges)
Skip a long way – a lot of theory, a lot of learning and lot of relationships and projects, and travels and collaboration, bitter-sweet challenges from many others themselves racialised in all sorts of complicated ways....
And I am basically still interested in whiteness as the fundmental institutionalising process of our times – I think for me at the moment this institutionalising is the process of organising ourselves in a way that makes us less expansively human than we could be.
If we want to make ourselves more expansively human we have to struggle through/with whiteness we have to resist what that says about us and how it defines us, how it produces us ontologically as a particular sort of human, not as all of us white, but as all in relation to whiteness.
And that absorption is both terrifying and painful for all as James Baldwin reminds us.
From my point of view this 'established white ontology' is an ontology of western liberal ‘institutionalisation’ suped-up through neoliberalisation.
So if we talk about whiteness (effectively) we have to confront this issue of institutionalisation in the general sense. Because this is never in general.
If we talk about institutions and seek to do them differently we have to talk about whiteness.
If we don’t we ‘mistake the map for the territory’ as Ebony Rose shows us drawing on Wynter in his brilliant essay 'Neolcolonial mind snatching: Sylvia wynter and the curriculum of Man':
For Ebony Rose (2019:39-40):
To those readers who are expecting a critique and solution, backed by empirical evidence, a hypothesis, and full bullett points for how to end neocolonial mind snatching, you are bound for disappointment. Instead, we must abandon our imprisonment to the logics of "applicability" and "practicality" in our discussion of solutions in education. If one's solutions do not meet the threshold for "real world implications," then they are automatically dismissed or ridiculed. No form of actual humanism can exist in this status quo, only fugitive practices of it. Modernity is structurally incapable with producing a human language, a human grammar, and a new set of instructions for how to live humanly together as a cultural species, rather than genetic ones. Any fugitivity and local insurrections may be wholly insufficient for dealing with permanent resettlements of how to address the human in an anti-Black colonial world. But if you are asking different questions about education, curriculum, instruction, and new social imaginaries, then you are already on the right track to come up with your own answer to the questions, "who am I?"
I think this mistaking of the map for the territory is what we were seeking to critique in this volume.
It is what we see in many of the more popular engagements with anti-racist praxis especially through whiteness, the privilege checking approach to whiteness as a substantialist thing in and of itself.
We are looking for a way to bring different imaginaries into play in an analysis of whiteness that help us out of this sort of substanialist theorising.
Focus on process, practice, relations and how we articulate those.
Watch the event recording for the discussion that followed