"To be White is to see oneself outside of Race." -- taken from an advertisement for a race discussion coming up at Le Moyne College.
I believe the quote comes from Robin DiAngelo. Yes, there is something she means by that that is true. She's talking about the structures and unconscious ways of behaving that are unfortunately and systematically associated with some of the ways that white people conceive of themselves in relation to race. In short, they don't conceive of themselves in relation to race. Race is something other people have, in effect. They are the norm, and others are the deviation, and racial identity is not something they have to think of themselves as having. It is a problem when white people conceive of themselves that way.
Even so, I would maintain that it's a misuse of language that is both misleading and alienating, and I think it's a terrible idea to use the word "white" or the word "whiteness" in that way. The actual meaning of "white" when used in a racial way, to most people, does not refer to those social patterns. It refers to which ancestry someone has, and talking this way is the best way to reinforce the unhealthy and problematic racial patterns in our social relations.
Talking as if this is essential to races and race relations gives the impression that (and therefore reinforces subconsciously) the idea that the unhealthy patterns are just the way things are. It does not allow us to separate whiteness as someone's ancestry and whatever social stuff we have added to that. It doesn't allow us to move away from thinking problematic racial relations are part of white identity, because it deliberately defines them as part of whiteness.
Not only that, but by saying something that seems patently false to most people, it comes across to most people as ignorant and racist. There is something the person actually means that is not ignorant and racist and is in fact intended to serve racial justice. But it comes across that way, and in my view people who talk that way are in fact to blame for that misimpression. They are the ones who are talking unclearly and using terms in nonstandard ways that ordinary people will not understand. So they are damaging their own message by coming across as racist extremists.
Furthermore, it is alienating to white people who care about racial justice and who recognize that there are many ways that white people can do the thing described in the quote, because it is speaking as if it is essential to white people. As I said, I know that is not what DiAngelo means. She means that it is essential to whiteness, and she isn't seeing whiteness as what it is to be descended from Europeans or whatever. She is seeing whiteness as participation in societal behaviors and patterns. And there is something right about what she is recognizing. That is important to see. Many of her critics refuse to see that, and there is something intellectually dishonest about that if they have actually read her carefully and charitably with an intent to evaluate her rather than to start with the assumption that she is wrong.
But what it comes across as is the kind of racial essentialism that science disproved in the mid-20th century. It comes across as treating all white people as being the problem. It presents itself as othering white people in order to get out a message about how white people other non-white people. And that is the "but you did it first" Trumpian whataboutism that the left frequently recognizes and points out when they see the right doing it but yet engages in just as frequently and loudly when they feel like being just as toxic as those they regularly condemn. Those who care about racial justice need to move beyond this kind of talk if we are to have real conversations about race that move people in a direction where they can hear us and accept what we are saying.
Leave a Reply.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.