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Reproducing and resisting whiteness in organisations, policies and places’ Social Politics

Updated: May 6, 2022

This is the introduction to the Special Issue on 'Reproducing and resisting whiteness in organisations, policies and places'.

Introduction excerpt

This special issue provides a unique opportunity to draw on and extend insights into the international and interdisciplinary field of “white studies” (Bonnett 1996b, 2008) or “critical whiteness studies” (Nayak 2007)1 for feminist social politics. In 1999, Ruth Frankenberg wrote:

In a process that has been gradually gathering force over the last several years in the United States and elsewhere, whiteness is once again leaving its location in doxa, becoming a focus of discussion and critique for some, and a treasured yet endangered object for others. In this latter regard, we may note that in the United States white supremacist, white patriot and white militia terrorism is on the rise, with black churches, Southeast Asian schoolchildren, and government buildings among the targets . . . in assaults on government buildings and agents we see white activists self-styled as an endangered race, ostensibly fighting back or striking pre-emptively against a government . . . whose intention is to withdraw all basic rights from white people (the self-described true and just inheritors of the land). (Frankenberg 1999b, 16)

Within two years of the publication of these observations, the events of 11 September 2001 in New York, at the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania highlighted a new, yet depressingly familiar geopolitics of conflict. This conflict, although ostensibly based in religion, has served to reinforce the convoluted connections between whiteness and Americanness and (“Westerness” more broadly) as a form of racial-national ideology that understands itself in terms of Judeo-Christian notions of goodness and innocence, Godliness and strength (Frankenberg 2005). As Frankenberg’s observations suggest, this new geopolitics is most often discussed and debated in terms of the rise of violent interlocking extremisms, racialized white and Other. However, there is growing concern that the focus of such debates obscures more insidious, nuanced, and subtle racialized governmentalities. For example, David Goldberg claims that the events of 11 September 2001 and the range of subsequent2 terrorist acts around the globe, the bombings in a Bali nightclub, in a Madrid subway in 2004, on the London tube and bus in 2005, in Sharm-el-Sheikh just after, and the coordinated bombings and shootings in Mumbai in 2008, have hastened the move to “born again racism.” In his words, this is “a racism acknowledged, where it is acknowledged at all, as individualized faith, of the socially dislocated heart rather than as institutionalized inequality” (Goldberg 2009, 23). It feeds into and off the neoliberalization of contemporary governance in complex ways. In social policy terms, the twin moves to claw back on social welfare commitments coupled with the shoring up of repressive state functionalities such as the police, military, prisons, and border control makes for racism operating at a different and less audible register. While public discriminations are explicitly circumscribed, private discriminations flourish. Where the official parameters of the state are ever more delimited in favor of the expansion of civil and private, for example, in the new UK Conservative–Liberal coalition government’s “Big Society” program; racism becomes individualized, nameless, and invisible in institutional terms with no precedent, pattern, or intent, its categories and logics denied (Goldberg 2009, 23). In so far as welfare regimes can be seen to have supported better education and employment prospects for racialized minorities, enforcing public compliance, neoliberalism can be read as a response to popular concerns over the impending impotence of whiteness.

Debates in the journal Social Politics have already been important to analyzing the ways in which states create and maintain the “racialized gender order” (Boris 1995, 2005). Recent critique focuses on the reproduction of white privilege through welfare and public policy paternalisms (Williams 1989, 1995) and maternalisms (Brush 2001; Crenshaw 1989; Lambert and Bullock 2005). Thus, there is a growing examination of the material effects of whiteness as an oppressive social relation enacted through state welfare. Nevertheless, within this literature, there remains relatively little, if any explicit interrogation, as to the “nature” of whiteness. There is a tendency for popular concepts such as “white backlash” (Hewitt 2005; Neubeck and Cazenave 2001) to reduce whiteness to “antiblackness.” Yet, there is a wealth of interesting issues to explore around the multiple and varied everyday experiences of whiteness; of the ways in which whiteness infuses state making, policies, organizational practices, and broader governmental belongings which Ghassan Hage describes as “the feeling that one is legitimately entitled in the course of everyday life to make a governmental/managerial statement about the nation,” and/or ‘to have a governmental or managerial attitude towards others especially those who are perceived to be lesser national or non-nationals’ (Elder et al. 2002; Hage 1998, 46).

It is from within these contemporary social, political, and institutional contexts that we position this special issue, arguing for new ways of understanding the subtleties and nuance of racialized governmentalities and how they operate. We suggest that critical whiteness studies provides one important avenue for such an analysis in that it provides a means with which critical scholarship can continue to explicitly name racialized power, institutionally enacted through the complex combination of the signs, subjects, strategies, and sanctions of welfare (Adams and Padamsee 2001).

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