Archive for whiteness
A new monograph, Latinos in Higher Education and Hispanic-serving Institutions by Anne-Marie Nunez and others includes a chapter on the question of Latino student identity development. The monograph indicates that “a well-developed ethnic identity has been linked to higher levels of self-esteem and overall quality of life….” (p. 29). Yet clearly the journey toward identity development for minority students is a continuous and complex one, without a single clear answer, and defined by individual circumstances. Researchers have noted the clear link between physical identifiability and discrimination. When racial/ethnic identity is linked to visible characteristics, it then becomes a question for the individual how to internalize, reconcile, embrace, and even transcend this identity.
The monograph cites Vasti Torres’ bicultural orientation model (BOM) that presents a nuanced understanding of differences in identity formation based upon an original study of 372 Latino students (1999). This model identifies four alternatives or modalities for how Latino students navigate between two cultures: 1) bicultural (comfort with both cultures); 2) Latino/Hispanic (orientation toward culture of family origin; 3) Anglo (strong connection with majority culture; and 4) marginal (discomfort with both cultures. Torres later conducted a longitudinal study of 10 Latino undergraduates and found distinct differences depending upon environment where they grew up, family influence and generational status, and self-perception of status in society.
Students from diverse environments had a stronger sense of ethnicity, and students from areas where Latinos constitute a critical mass did not view themselves as minorities until they arrived on a predominantly white campus. First-generation college students struggled to balance the demands of schooling with parental expectations. Self-perceptions of ethnic identity relate to whether this identity is viewed as a source of privilege or nonprivilege and whether or not negative stereotypes are seen to pertain to the individual.
Beverly Tatum sheds further light on the complex interrelationship of racial/ethnic identity development and physical identifiability in her landmark book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?. She describes identify development as circular, rather than linear, like moving up a spiral staircase. In some sense, we are never finished with this process. Tatum draws upon William Cross’ five-stage theory of identity that begins with pre-encounters with the beliefs and values of the dominant white culture; then moves to a stage of encounter when racist acts draw attention to the significance of race and one’s own devalued position; 3)immersion in the multiplicity of one’s identity; 4) internalization of a positive identity that embraces one’s own difference; and 5) internalized commitment to support the concerns of diverse others.
The pain of racist encounters can cause individuals to reenter the cycle and re-examine their own progress. Perceptions of incompetence associated with minority women in academe are a case in point. As documented in a new book, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia edited by four female professors, racist encounters can cause individuals to doubt themselves and begin the dangerous process of self-fulfilling prophecy and internalization of stereotypes. For example,Yolanda Niemann, in her essay entitled “The Making of a Token,”writes of the disparaging remarks made about her during her third year pre-tenure review, including the mischaracterization of her highly rated teaching evaluations as “poor” by an antagonistic reviewing committee and the stigmatization of negative expectations.
What remains clear is that in the formative college years, the role of college professors is critical in helping minority students in the process of identity exploration as they encounter stereotypes, misperceptions, and even devaluing experiences on our college campuses. The ability to provide a framework for understanding can allow minority students to progress on the continuous, circular staircase leading to the internalization of a positive identity.
The academic and policy worlds have been roiled by last week’s announcement that a Heritage Foundation study on the cost of immigration reform was co-authored by Jason Richwine, who wrote a dissertation on the purported low IQ of immigrants. It beyond belief that, in the year 2013, there are still some that want to posit that there is a genetic basis for race. Even more surprisingly, these arguments come endorsed with a seal of approval by some of the nation’s top universities, like Harvard in this case. As an alumnus of the Kennedy School and a scholar of race and Hispanic identity, I feel obliged to provide a response.
Having spent last week with some of the world’s premier scholars of race at a workshop on “Reconsidering Race” at Texas A&M University, in which we examined the interface of social science and genetics/genomics and health, I am stunned by the lack of rigor and intellectual depth evinced by Richwine’s dissertation. The work makes extremely simplistic assumptions about “race,” immigration, and the link between IQ and genetics. Even a neophyte in matters of genetics/genomics can see the gaping holes in Richwine’s logic. One would have expected his advisors, Professors George Borjas, Richard Zeckhauser, and Christopher Jencks to have been more cognizant of the complex nature of terms such as “race”, “Hispanic,” and “white,” as well as their tenuous links to genetics (assuming they actually read the dissertation). Richwine claimed in his Harvard dissertation that “the material environment and genes probably make the greatest contributions to IQ differences” (p. 4) and that “today’s immigrants are not as intelligent on average as white natives” (p. 134).
There are three basic points that have to be made to remind these scholars that such shoddy work should not easily pass at the doctoral level– or any level for that matter. One is the basic idea that “Hispanics” can be of any race (a concept that Richwine references in passing in his dissertation), so that it is not possible to simply oppose “Hispanic” and “white” as if they were mutually exclusive categories (a dichotomy that is crucial to his argument). In fact, Pope Francis is Hispanic; so is Rigoberta Menchu. The term is a politically- and socially-constructed category that has been shaped through historical ties between the US, Latin America, and the Iberian peninsula. There is nothing inherent, natural, or ‘genetic’ in the category of “Hispanic.” There are many people of European ancestry in Latin America, but there are also many of Amerindian origins, African descent, and a vast majority whose origins are a mix of ethnicities, including East Asian, Jewish, Arab, and practically every other group in the world (I myself, for example, am of Aymara, Spanish, German, Italian, and Portuguese origin).
The primitive binary taxonomy of “black vs. white” (emanating from the US one-drop rule) that has somehow become transformed into a spurious “white vs. non-white” Manichean logic is untenable. Not only has racial admixture always been the case (since, as work by Nell Irvin Painter reminds us, there were many ‘white races’ — not just one– at previous historical times), but ‘racial’ mixing has become even more prevalent even in the US in the last five decades as a result of the rapid rise of non-European migration. Even for those who consider “Hispanic” a race, the understanding of this term is cultural and historical, not genetic (for example, in the ideas of the eminent Mexican philosopher Jose Vasconcelos). Race is not a dichotomous variable. The Latin American experience shows us this, and the US would do well to heed that lesson to break down its dualistic racial paradigm.
The second point to be made is that the genetics and genomics revolution of the last two decades or so does have implications for what we understand as ‘race,’ but not in the way that people like Richwine want to argue. Our workshop examined the idea of ‘race’ in light of recent genetics and genomic research in order to see whether it has consequences for our conceptualization of ‘racial’ identities and categories, and also for policies related to health disparities. These are complex and as of yet unresolved questions, but they certainly do not buttress the idea that there are such things as natural entities called ‘’races’’ and that they are rooted in genetic grounds. Recent research shows that humans share about 97% of the same genetic material with orangutans (an animal beloved by visitors to this blog). It also tells us that orangutans are more genetically diverse among themselves than are humans. In other words, people are more alike, across regional populations, than we are different.
And even within the small areas of difference, no evidence exists that such differences make for strictly separate human categories that are essentially discrete. It may be true that some populations share some genetic markers among themselves more than with others, but these differences are minimal. As epidemiologist Jay Kaufman of McGill has argued, the more we learn about the human genome, the closer we are to individuated genetic understanding, not to the construction of broad, essentially-unchangeable human groups. Richwine’s error is to think that IQ is a stable phenotype that reflects universal intelligence. Yes, we should take the genomics revolution as a challenge to simple social-constructivist views of race, but we cannot make the error of thinking that it validates a reification of the complex sociopolitical categories that we call ‘races.’
The last point is that the rudimentary statistical analysis of the kind that Richwine carried out ignores the important interface between social realities and genetics. Besides the problems noted above, we can underscore that even IQ test results are culturally-shaped, and not some measure of a primordial, biological mental ability. Rather, they reflect the intertwining of some aspects of mental capacity with education, life experiences, socioeconomic status, and other contingent contexts. They are not measures of pure intelligence (a dubious concept as well). What we ought to be advocating is not some sort of eugenics-based retrograde Nativist policy that reminds us of the 19th century, but improved educational access for all, and a fair, uniform immigration policy that minimizes discrimination, not enhances it.
It is both morally and intellectually disingenuous to propose what Borjas et al. have been advocating for years now. To claim to favor more immigration of those with “higher IQ’s” or more human capital flies in the face of the fact that low-human capital immigrants contribute profoundly to US economic growth due to their low wages in key industries such as construction, agriculture, and also the service sector. In manufacturing, Hispanics are underpaid relative to their economic value, as sociologist Arthur Sakamoto has shown. Ethically, it is unacceptable for a modern liberal-democratic state to promote high-IQ selectivity in immigration, for this policy advocates unequal treatment rather than uniform standards for all (in this light, Canadian immigration policy, which makes distinctions based on human capital, may be suspect as well, owing to the brain drain that it induces in poorer nations).
As educators, we have a special responsibility to provide non-superficial answers to complex questions. The idea of race is a fraught one. As the Kennedy School is my alma mater, I must say that it is time that policy questions not be treated as merely quantitative or mechanical issues. Public policy schools must also provide coursework that deepens analyses, no thins them down. “Race” is a concept that involves normative, political, historical, cultural, economic, and social forces in a complex interplay. It cannot be bandied about willy-nilly with no sensitivity to them. This idea applies to all racial categories, but it is perhaps most salient for the term “Hispanic,” owing to the rich diversity of ethnic origins that have gone into its making over a long historical period. It is befuddling that no one on Richwine’s committee seems to have been aware of this (in particular Jencks, who has written on these issues in the past).
It is time for antediluvian academics to step aside and give more space to the new generations of scholars that are able to engage in a critique of the all-too-dominant idea that race is merely a social construct but without falling into an antiquated racial essentialism. It is time for a real national dialogue on race that will start new conversations. Our classrooms are a good place to begin these discussions.
Diego A. von Vacano is Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University and author of The Color of Citizenship: Race, Modernity and Hispanic/Latin American Political Thought (Oxford UP) and is writing a new book on immigrant identities.
The U.S. has a long and intense history of institutionalized racial violence against Latinas/os in the form of physical assaults, beatings, and murders. The violent racialized framing of Latinas/os has been a constant narrative throughout U.S. history including, but not limited to, the U.S. – Mexican War (1846-1848), the lynching of Mexicans (1848-1928), and the Zoot Suit Riots (1943). The use of deadly force has played a central role in reproducing racial oppression, resulting in the dehumanization, marginalization, subjugation, and ultimately the countless killings of people of color. Anti-immigrant and anti-Latina/o sentiment continues to negatively shape the perceptions of Latinas/os as both the perpetual foreigner and as a permanent threat to the white status quo. This white racial framing (Feagin, 2013) is used to justify white’s often brutal and savage mistreatment of Latinas/os.
The following cases highlight not only white-on-Brown violence, but the lived realities for Latinas/os in the purported land of the free and home of the brave. The proceeding examples represent a small sample of white racial violence. The first case took place April 2006 in Houston, Texas. This hate crime involved the brutal torture and sodomy of a young Latino male and his subsequent suicide. After knocking 16 year old David Ritcheson unconscious, the two white teens, David Tuck, 18, and Keith Turner, 17, continued to punish the defenseless victim:
For the next five hours, they tortured him: They stripped him naked, kicked him with steel-toed boots, burned him with cigarettes and choked him with a garden hose. Tuck shouted racial epithets and carved a swastika in the boy’s chest with a knife. Turner grabbed a plastic patio umbrella pole and placed it near the victim’s rectum. Tuck kicked the pole several inches in.
The following hate crime occurred on July 12, 2008 in the city of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. Two white teens identified as Brandon Piekarsky, 16, and Derrick Donchak, 18, beat Luis Ramirez, 25, to death while yelling racial epithets and told him:
This is Shenandoah. This is America. Go back to Mexico.” According to testimony, Donchak beat Ramirez while holding a thick piece of metal identified at trial as a “fist pack.” After another of their friends punched Ramirez in the face, causing him to fall back and hit his head on the ground, Piekarsky kicked Ramirez in the head as he lay unconscious and prone on the ground. After Piekarsky kicked Ramirez, he told a bystander who was married to a Latino man to “tell your Mexican friends to get out of Shenandoah or you will be lying next to him.
A few months later on November 8, 2008 another Latino male was assaulted by seven teenagers and eventually killed by Jeffrey Convoy, 17, in a Patchogue, Long Island train station. The victim identified as 37 year old Marcelo Lucero was an:
Ecuadorian immigrant who worked at a local dry cleaning store, was stabbed in the chest and left to die. The teens were convicted of gang assault; prosecutors said the attack was part of targeted hate crimes against Latinos in the area, which the perpetrators purportedly called “Mexican hopping” or “beaner hopping.
Unlike whites, Latinas/os are forced to regularly navigate, resist, and deal with white racist xenophobia. For example, on May 6, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona, Juan Varela, 44 was gunned down in front of his brother and mother by his white neighbor Gary Kelley, 51, who screamed at Varela, in a drunken rage, “You fucking Mexican, go back to Mexico!”
The white racist structure identifies Latina/o bodies as non-white, creating entitlement and privilege; consequently whites are empowered to commit acts of violence against people deemed subhuman and inferior. One of the most recent examples of white violence transpired on January 26, 2013 in Liburn, Georgia; proving that even pulling into the wrong driveway can get you killed. According to news reports Rodrigo Diaz, 22 was driving to one of his passengers friend’s house and mistakenly pulled into the driveway of Philip Sailors, 69. Sailors’ lawyer contends that his client shot Diaz because he was under the impression that Diaz was trying to rob his home:
When officers arrived, Angie Rebolledo, Diaz’s girlfriend, had blood on her jeans, both arms and both hands as she was attempting to get a response from him and screamed frantically that her boyfriend had been shot, according to police.
These murders are best understood within the historical trend of white nativism and discrimination, and illustrate the systemic nature of white-on-Brown racial killings. Anti-Latina/o violence has not stopped. In the past seven years there has been numerous Latinas/os murdered by whites. Although each case is separate and carried out by individual whites, collectively over time, these acts of aggression represent a systematic pattern of white antagonism and violence against Latinas/os (Feagin, 2013). White supremacy is not only defined but relies on violence to replicate the existing social system; white-on-Brown violence is foundational to the U.S. both historically and contemporary (Feagin, 2013); Delgado, 2009.
Latinas/os can be victims of physical assaults and murder at any given place or moment. Whites do not deal with this same fear, hostility, and threat of violence. Ultimately Latinas/os and their families are left to deal with death and devastation.
David Ritcheson (1989-2007)
Luis Ramirez (1983-2008)
Marcelo Lucero (1971-2008)
Juan Varela (1966-2010)
Rodrigo Diaz (1991-2013)
Those of us who study racial and ethnic relations in the United States recognize that race is a social construction. What race means, the characteristics and features that we attach to it and the classifications within it (whether Black, White, Asian, and the like), is not static or primordial, but dynamic and changeable. The meaning of race, then, is conditioned on and by an always shifting, societal context. For example, at the turn of the previous century, race was constructed as biological. Distinct racial classifications were understood as reflecting genetic and morphological differences, observable by phenotype. Racial disparities and inequities were explained in biological terms linked to ideas of racial inferiority and superiority.
The notion of race as rooted in biology, with consequent outcomes linked to ascribed deficiencies, or racism, is understood today as an attempt by the dominant (white) group to protect their material interests, like Southern plantation owners who relied on slave labor to maximize their profits during the pre-industrial era. In this way, the social construction of race as “biological” — in the absence of any hard proof or genetic evidence — emerged as a social fact to reproduce racial inequality.
Today we are much less likely to associate racial group membership with genetic endowments. At the same time, the concept and category of race as a distinct social group persists in the contemporary period. An individual’s racial group membership or identity is still conditioned in part, on phenotype. What this means is that racial classification is both self-defined and externally-imposed. How an individual racially identifies and how he or she is racially identified by others, both matter. Moreover, an individual’s own, personal racial identity “choice” is often but not always, consistent with that which is assigned to him or her by the outside world. For example, although Tiger Woods identifies racially as Cablinasian (Caucasian, Black, Indian and Asian), most Americans racially identify him as Black only.
Why race as a social construction matters for ethnicity
The dialectical fluidity of race — between self-definition and other-definition, between an individual’s chosen racial identity versus society’s imposed racial identity — facilitates an understanding of race as a social construction. After all, if Tiger Wood’s racial identity does not match that ascribed by the vast majority of American society, then racial identity (although a social fact), is crap beyond the meaning that is attached to it by an individual on the one hand and society on the other. The racial identity mismatch observed in the case of Tiger Woods encourages us to understand race as a less salient, “made up” category of identity, especially when compared against ethnicity, which is self-defined only.
For example, if I was walking down a public street, most Americans would identify me racially as “Latina” but would be less likely to identify me as Mexican-origin. My ethnicity, whether of Mexican, Salvadoran, Puerto Rican, or other Latin American-origin, is indeterminate; they’d have to ask. Additionally, because ethnicity is self-defined, it presumably has meaning for the person identifying with a particular ethnic group. From this perspective, ethnic self-identity matters for individuals and society in a way that racial self-identity doesn’t.
Ironically, this idea is related to a counterintuitive conception of ethnicity that characterizes it as more fluid than race, because one’s ethnicity is always “optional” (Waters 1990). Here the idea is simply that ethnicity is dynamic, fluid and self-defined; as such, anyone can assert any ethnic identity they choose to. And yet, the ethnic identity that they choose, because they choose it, must matter.
The salience of ethnicity when compared to race is also highlighted in the work of some racial and ethnic scholars who refer to race as a “secondary” category of identity, whereas ethnicity is referred to as an “anchoring” or “primary identity” (Itzigsohn and Dore-Cabral 2000; McDermott and Samson 2005). Moreover, the “maintenance” of ethnicity is thought to foster immigrant group cohesion, which may offer some material protection against a negative societal reception context. In contrast, racial identity formation may take place during a process of assimilation, as immigrants and their descendants “lose” their ethnicity, and with it, close-knit ties and sociocultural support. The characterization of ethnicity as a primary, anchoring identity, the maintenance of which offers protection to group members (whereas racial identity does not), underscores the greater importance and salience that American scholars of race relations place on ethnicity.
The perception of ethnicity as a more salient feature of identity is related to its conception as a socially constructed, self-defined identity. Because there is no other option but the option that is chosen by the individual, whether the option makes (common)sense or not, the option selected is accepted without comment. On the other hand, racial identity may be self-defined but is also other-defined. The person who racially identifies one way may or may not be racially identified that way by everyone else.
The problem with this construction of ethnicity is that it tends to reinforce the idea that ethnicity is somehow more “real” (if more fluid) than race. And if ethnicity is more real than race, then for some scholars, it becomes inherent, primordial. This is the slippery slope of ethnic identity formation and why at times, we may forget that ethnicity is as socially constructed as race.
Remember, ethnicity is a social construction too
I started thinking of the relationship between ethnic self-identification and the tendency to interpret ethnicity as more “real” than race when, as part of a new research project, I read a transcribed interview of a self-identified Mexican-origin entrepreneur. This entrepreneur was born in Mexico by immigrant Lebanese parents, she went to boarding school in France, eventually moved back to Mexico for a short time, then moved to the United States where she has been ever since, and where she married a White American man. Her self-defined ethnicity is Mexican, although she speaks Arabic, Spanish and French. Her racial identity is White, and claims that she doesn’t “feel Hispanic,” even though she has applied for and won awards for being a successful “Hispanic” entrepreneur.
In other words, her racial identity is White (she mentions that “No one considers [me] Hispanic”), although she has on occasion identified as Hispanic for instrumental reasons. Either way, the social construction of race is apparent here. Her ethnicity, on the other hand, was confusing to me. Although she self-identifies as Mexican, her parents are Lebanese, she maintains cultural features that are Mexican and Lebanese, she spent a lot of time outside of Mexico when she was growing up, and she racially identifies as non-Hispanic White.
When I finished reading the interview, I wondered about my easy acceptance of her White or Hispanic racial identity, depending, and my confusion and even discomfort about her ethnic self-identity. Why didn’t I readily accept her as ethnically Mexican, when she said she was? At that point I reached out to some colleague-friends and asked them to weigh in on her ethnic identity. Every one of them said she was Mexican; basically, because she said so. Yet, couldn’t we argue that she is also Lebanese? Why didn’t we stop to consider whether she was “more Lebanese” than Mexican, or both? Then again, since ethnicity is socially constructed as self-identified, why shouldn’t she be classified as Mexican if she says so? The point here is that ethnicity as a category of identity is arguably as messy as the category of race is, and yet, we often take ethnic identity at face value. Regarding this entrepreneur, my colleagues were willing to accept her as Mexican because she said so. This belies a salience not to ethnicity, per se, but rather, to the salience of self-identification.
The acceptance of self-identification as real deserves explicit acknowledgement, because it is the reason why we accept ethnic self-identity choices or options without question. Ethnicity could be just as messy as racial identity, if we constructed it as such. But we didn’t, so it isn’t. In fact, we don’t really care about racial self-identity at all, because whether it converges with society’s externally-imposed identity or not doesn’t really matter. A racial mismatch between an individual’s self-identity and society’s is acceptable, while an ethnic mismatch is not. In the end, the only ethnic identity that matters is the one the individual ascribes to. And yet, this doesn’t mean it is more important or anchoring or inherent than racial identity, just that it is socially constructed as self-identified, so it is perceived as such.
 Although this conception also continues to persist. For example, the neoconservative argument that affirmative action is “reverse racism” highlights the undeserved, merit-less, advantages of “less-qualified” racial minorities who benefit from “unfair government” “set-asides” in education and the labor market. More recently, however, observed racial inequality is commonly explained using a “color blind” framework, which is an attempt to explain racial inequality through non-racial means. In other words, to blame “anything but racism” for persistent racial inequality (see Bonilla Silva 2009).
 With the exception of critical race scholars, who, in contrast to traditional or mainstream approaches (i.e., the research on assimilation or immigrant incorporation), tend to emphasize race as a systemic or structural force (see the works of Feagin 2006, Moore 2007, and Bonilla-Silva 1997).
Zulema Valdez is associate professor of sociology at Texas A&M University. She is author of the book, The New Entrepreneurs: Race, Class, and Gender in American Enterprise.
Journalist and commentator David Sirota has an interesting piece about the reaction to some statements about the role of white men as the typical killers in the mass murders like the ones in Columbine, Aurora, and Newtown which he made in an MSNBC commentary and interview with Chris Hayes:
I said that because most of the mass shootings in America come at the hands of white men, there would likely be political opposition to initiatives that propose to use those facts to profile the demographic group to which these killers belong. I suggested that’s the case because as opposed to people of color or, say, Muslims, white men as a subgroup are in such a privileged position in our society that they are the one group that our political system avoids demographically profiling or analytically aggregating in any real way. Indeed, unlike other demographic, white guys as a group are never thought to be an acceptable topic for any kind of critical discussion whatsoever, even when there is ample reason to open up such a discussion.
Calling out white men, and most especially elite white men, as a/the social or political problem is something I have written and lectured on for many years now, but it is still very rare for anyone, commentator or researcher, to even go as far as Sirota does in this important Salon article.
Toward the end of the article even he starts backing off on some of the logical implications of calling out white men and insisting that he is not calling for racial profiling of white men as potential killers. He notes that the current tempered and nuanced conversation of these mass killings is only occurring because “white guys” are the (usually unremarked upon) demographic so dramatically involved:
But the point here is that those tempered and nuanced conversations are only able to happen because the demographic at the center of it all is white guys. That is the one group in America that gets to avoid being referred to in aggregate negative terms (and gets to avoid being unduly profiled by this nation’s security apparatus), which means we are defaulting to a much more dispassionate and sane conversation — one that treats the perpetrators as deranged individuals, rather than typical and thus stereotype-justifying representatives of an entire demographic.
In my White Men on Race (With E. O’Brien) and The White Racial Frame book (soon out in a second edition in February) I have argued that these discussions such as Sirota raises barely begin to raise the issue of the role and significance of white men, particularly elite white men, in creating and maintaining our system of racial oppression, and the supporting social, political, and economic institutions that operate to protect that systemic racism and its white male regulators.
Here is a very brief overview of some historical points I make in that white frame book about that political background and current political reality:
The “founding fathers” created a U.S. origins narrative that was (and still is) substantially mythological, a story in which a mostly anti-democratic, often slaveholding, group of elite white men were said to be heroes championing ideals of equality and democracy for a new United States. These elite leaders created an imagined community, that is, a heralded “democratic” society in which all Americans supposedly shared comradeship. However, contrary to this mythology, the U.S. Constitution did not create a democracy where most adult Americans had the right to participate substantially and freely in political institutions. Native Americans and African Americans, constituting at least a fifth of the population, were excluded. (So were all women) As Vincent Harding has put it, the U.S. constitutional convention was “more like a poorly attended dress rehearsal, with most of the rightful and necessary performers and creators barred from the stage.”
From the beginning, the democratic rhetoric was usually more about public relations and the interests of the white elite than about creating actual democratic institutions. The new U.S. society was highly inegalitarian, with extreme inequality across the color line. The new United States was mostly led by white men who were overt white supremacists. It was a society that had no sense of shared comradeship among its white, black, and Native American residents. In 1843 no less a figure than former president and then member of Congress, John Quincy Adams, asserted in a congressional speech that the United States had never been a democracy because it had long been effectively controlled by a few thousand slaveholders. In this founding era U.S. political institutions were often openly proslavery, and an overtly white supremacist framing and dominance were asserted by many white leaders through these institutions until the ending of Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s.
Things mostly did not get better over time, as (especially elite) white men stayed completely in control of major institutions:
During the slavery and Jim Crow eras, the Supreme Court was a clear manifestation of white dominance, for only elite white men served on it. Examining the justices’ decisions on racial matters during most of the legal segregation era, one finds that they regularly reflect the dominant white-racist framing and routinely ignore or dismiss the civil rights counter-frames of Americans of color. Between the 1870s and the 1930s, Supreme Court decisions regularly eroded the civil rights that African Americans had theoretically gained under the 14th and 15th amendments that were added to the U.S. Constitution in the Reconstruction era. In the influential 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, a nearly unanimous court (one dissenter) upheld a Louisiana law requiring white-black segregation in public accommodations.
Things changed only because of centuries of protest by Americans of color, and then only as allowed by elite white men once again:
To the present day, the U.S. Constitution and the Supreme Court decisions interpreting it—almost all made over centuries by elite white men—have greatly shaped the basic contours of the legal and political systems, as well as other societal institutions. Important changes in the system of oppression, such as the official ending of Jim Crow in the 1960s, have come only when many whites have believed those changes to be in their group interest—that is, when there is what Derrick Bell has called “interest convergence” between the interests of the racially oppressed and the interests of whites, especially some in the white male elite.
When will any of the mainstream media call out and discuss various (elite) white male “social problems,” including problems of mass violence like at Newtown, as often and openly as they now do for non-white-male groups?
Yesterday, a few of us at the Graduate Center hosted an interdisciplinary group of scholars to think critically about ‘whiteness and health.’ Across the day, with a kind of staccato arousal, I was struck by several ideas, including the following:
- “Actionable Decoys” seemed to emerge as so many of the talks sketched the landscape of global, economic, and health “concerns” that are actually instances of structural injustice and violence in which “whiteness” comes to be privileged, the standard, normative, or even healthy, and people of color or those in poverty hold risk, contamination, disease, TB, waste. That is the racist landscape which is built into material conditions and cultural constructions; the “actionable decoys” are the sites of intervention that policy makers and public health advocates address. That is, instead of dealing with the power struggles of the Occupation in the Middle East, or structural/historic injustice in New Orleans following Katrina or in the Rockaways following Sandy, we address (just for a moment) mental illness. Or, instead of attending to the wide and deep reach of structural racism under the skin and in the mind, we invest in MRI machines and psycho-physiological indicators to “document” how brains light up around racial anxiety. Or, the public health fetish with TB framed as a housing issue, that then enables the state to enter and destroy poor people’s housing (Samuel K. Roberts, Lisa O’Sullivan).
- My worry of course is that “science” enables and creates a scientific lubrication and justification for the narrow shape of the problem, enabling a violent intervention that situates the problem in the body/mind/housing of racialized (and poor) people as if there were no connection to widening inequality gaps and swelling privilege. Thus, “actionable decoys” are the closing of public housing, obesity campaigns, limits on college access for formerly incarcerated students at the precise same time and as a reaction to the now quite predictable action of a white-boy-with-a-gun who blows up a community. What I want to argue is that actionable decoys appear to be a form of ‘care’, responding to the ‘pain’ and ‘crisis’ in communities of color (particularly low income), while occluding issues of structure, privilege, history, whiteness-as-healthy, and ultimately generating a privatized market or opportunities for elites (a new pharmaceutical drug, new housing in gentrified neighborhoods, new schools in same neighborhoods).
- In the language of social science, whiteness gets reinscribed as the independent variable (IV) becomes the dependent variable (DV). The grants we get, the funding and socialization of students are all saturated in a fundamental sea of epistemological violence so that “race disparities” (or “gender disparities” or both) reveal AND occlude the structural conditions of oppression in which gender/race/class/sexuality/disability… emerge as axes of power/lines of analysis – but not the Independent Variable to be ‘fixed. Funding streams fetishize “race” as a predictor (IV) and damage as an outcome (DV), occluding structure, history and the circuits that link privilege and marginalization
- Several people raised the specter of whiteness becoming a market (Nadia Abu El-Haj, Alondra Nelson, Lisa Brundage, Barbara Katz Rothman). I was struck by the contrast to the hyper-criminalization of people of color. The result then is that if you support the market you can avoid criminalization – the methadone/bupe/oxycotin discussion (Helena Hansen, Julie Netherland) was superb on this point – but like enlisting in the military, those with green cards may become citizens. If you give your body to the market or the military – feed the system, you can avoid being criminalized; but if you won’t, or can’t, the cage awaits.
- There were so many evocative and powerful ‘couplets’ during the same afternoon, it prompted me to think about other kinds of twinings, and the slippage between them. Questions arise about: Who is the addict vs. who is dependent? What is obscured vs. what is privileged? Likewise, I started thinking about who is the ‘sex addict’ (which a predominantly white, and flourishing industry) and who is the ‘sexual predator’ (more often a person of color, incarcerated)? In the panel on addition (Helena Hansen, Julie Netherland), I was led to wonder about who gets to be medicalized (bupenorphine) and who gets to be criminalized (methadone). And yet, it is so hard to speak about white pathology because as Richard Dyer suggests, it falls apart in your hands, or it appears merely ‘human.’ As Rebecca Tiger’s presentation suggested, it is difficult to talk about the “desire to excuse”Lance Armstrong , without the contrast of Whitney Houston, because it appears to ‘natural’ and ‘we are all fallible’ when the case is White, and elite. In many ways, this extends the work of Sarah Carney who found that in press accounts of “failure to protect laws” (in which children die through accident while parents are distracted), that Black mothers are treated much more harshly than either white mothers or white fathers.
- A corollary, as raised by Akemi Nishidi in conversation with Zinobia Bennefield, is that the “vulnerable” group or one under structural attack is often quick to distance from their more vile category-twin. Thus, communities of color rightfully point to the over-enrollment of special education students who are Black. “We Are Not Crazy” is a rallying cry from communities that have been painted with the lamination of insanity, or even trauma without addressing the structural attack on madness, and the slippery construction of this swampy categorization, the real pain and the fantasy of the absence of pain in those of us not labeled (see Rachel Leibert’s work on this).
- The eery presence of the (white)absence of white responsibility (more precisely white elites) was with us throughout the afternoon. It is so difficult to hold White people or whiteness accountable, to speak the structural benefits of whiteness without doubling it as merit. What this means is that whiteness makes it so hard to critique Lance Armstrong, or the white man whose child tragically dies in the back of his car, but so easy to condemn Whitney Houston, or the black mother when the same happens. It’s as though “white responsibility” is an oxymoron and black blame is redundant. Whiteness as Teflon.
- Finally, I was struck by the ironies of anti-racist interventions being co-opted and exploited, toward racist (or racial?) ends. So, for example, the Human Genome Diversity Project, or even the ‘discovery’ of bupe as an alternative to methadone, or the Implicit Association Test which measures unconscious racism, or the early ‘care’ given to persons/housing/communities with TB or VD, all of these presumably (maybe not bupe) emerged out of concern for communities of color, concern about racism, but all of these have been inverted and turned back to racial and often racist purposes, at minimum reiniscribing the very racial “differences” and disparities they were presumably designed to combat.
~ Michelle Fine, Distinguished Professor, Graduate Center, CUNY
The archived video(s) of An Exploration of Whiteness and Health A Roundtable Discussion
is available beginning here (updated 12/16/12):
The examination of whiteness in the scholarly literature is well established (Fine et al., 1997; Frankenberg, 1993; Hughey, 2010; Twine and Gallagher, 2008). Whiteness, like other racial categories, is socially constructed and actively maintained through the social boundaries by, for example, defining who is white and is not white (Allen, 1994; Daniels, 1997; Roediger, 2007; Wray, 2006). The seeming invisibility of whiteness is one of its’ central mechanisms because it allows those within the category white to think of themselves as simply human, individual and without race, while Others are racialized (Dyer, 1998). We know that whiteness shapes housing (Low, 2009), education (Leonardo, 2009), politics (Feagin, 2012), law (Lopez, 2006), research methods (Zuberi and Bonilla-Silva, 2008) and indeed, frames much of our misapprehension of society (Feagin, 2010; Lipsitz, 1998). Still, we understand little of how whiteness and health are connected. Being socially assigned as white is associated with large and statistically significant advantages in health status (Jones et al., 2008). Anderson’s ground breaking book The Cultivation of Whiteness (2006) offers an exhaustive examination of the way whiteness was deployed as a scientific and medical category in Australia though to the second world war. Yet, there is relatively little beyond this that explores the myriad connections between whiteness and health (Daniels and Schulz, 2006; Daniels, 2012; Katz Rothman, 2001). References listed here.
The Whiteness & Health Roundtable is an afternoon conversation with scholars and activists doing work on this area.
The roundtable is sponsored by the Advanced Research Collaborative (ARC) and the Critical Social & Environmental Psychology program at the Graduate Center CUNY. The event is hosted by Michelle Fine (Distinguished Professor, Social Psychology, Women’s Studies and Urban Education), Jessie Daniels (Professor, Urban Public Health and Sociology) and Rachel Liebert, (PhD Student, Critical Social/Personality Psychology).
Below is a collection of creative vignettes and poems from a diverse group of Sam Houston State University students who were engaged in projects that involved critical examinations of white racial framing and counter-framing. Their work contests and challenges stereotypes generated by the white racist and gendered framing often deeply engrained in both the minds of dominate group members and subordinate group members who have internalized features of the framing toward their own groups and unacquainted subordinate groups.
The first four vignettes were created by students for their in-class group presentation on “Extending the White Racial Frame” from The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Framing and Counter-Framing. The last two poems were created by two students for their personal projects that focus on racial and ethnic, and gendered marginalization:
By Austin Campbell
I think this is what you think when you see me, I don’t really have to ask. Sure I’m black so I must be a thug, full of ghetto love and talking like “yeah that’s my homeboy” or n-word what’s up? Yeah I’m black so the crack corner must be my throne, and yeah you think you got it all figured out thinking that I come from a really bad home. Oh and don’t forget to clutch your purse when I come your way because you know I’m black and looking for a pay day. So congrats to you for thinking that you’re all right, but I’m going to show you how that’s all a lie. Yes I am black and that true but let me make you aware of something new. No I don’t come from a bad home at all. In fact I may even be living next door to you. Yes my mom and dad got a divorce but my mom and step-dad raised me up too. Using the n-word, nah, that’s not my thing. Some rappers may say it but really that’s not me. And a crack corner or stealing your purse, phss, get out of here. Next time don’t believe every movie you see. You really want to know me then look around your own group and you’ll realize I’m just like you.
So next time you see me what will you say? All I want to know is after hearing me speak, is this what you will see or think when I come by your way?
By Erik Jackson
Is this what comes into your mind when you hear my name Sky? When I tell you that I am a Cherokee and not a Native American, is this what you think? Or is it when you see me and my Native American hair that you think, “boy I bet s/he can put down the alcohol. They are known for drinking, hell they even have alcohol made after them.” Or maybe it’s a different thought, a thought about the history of how my people have come to be treated by “Americans” and the policies that have been “thankfully given” to us. You know about our lands and our casinos that barely make any money and that we must live on welfare because we spend all of our money on gambling and alcohol. In fact none of these are true about me at all. Yeah I do go by my Cherokee-American background because I’m proud of it. Another thing that might surprise you I bet would be in fact that I nor my parents or anyone in my family for that matter drinks, so no we are not able to “put them down” like you might imagine. Also, we aren’t on welfare, as a matter of fact I live in your basic residential neighborhood and once again no one I know of Native American background works at a casino.
I’m just one of many voices speaking out about Native Americans. In all honesty it’s up to you to believe what you want, all I have to question is this—is this what you will think when you see me, is this what I am to you?
By Benjamin Prochazka
Is this what you think when you see me? Yes I wear Sperry’s and I do tend to dress nicely on a regular basis but is this me to you? You think when you see me walk, sure thanks to my genes, I’m a little shorter, with my slanted eyes and jet black hair, and my calm quiet nature, this is me? Or is it my backpack stuffed with things weighing me down that makes you think “wow I bet he has a lot of sushi, and video games, and books in there. He’s probably on his way to study “ right? Well surprise! Most of this isn’t true. I’m an average student, C+ to be honest. You’ll find this hard to believe too that I don’t eat sushi. I’ve never really cared for it. As you can see I don’t have an Asian accent either, shocker right? I dress this way because I’m comfortable in these clothes. You know what I mean because y’all wear the same clothes as I do.
So is this what you think when you see me? Or have you always seen me as one of you?
By Denise Castillo
Is this what comes to mind when I tell you that I am a Latina? Do you automatically assume that I can dance and move my hips really well? Or that I’m an amazing cook because that’s what we are known for? Or is it that you think all the men in my family are lazy and begging for jobs on a street corner and desperately taking any job they can get just so they can have the money to support their family? You probably think that we all live in a small house on welfare in some horrible neighborhood with gang members on every corner. Do you assume that any Mexican you see on the street is illegal? Or that I have some family in jail for doing some illegal activity? Do you think that I eat tacos and rice and beans all day every day? Or that we all have accents or can’t even speak any English for that matter? Well to be perfectly honest with you, none of that about me is true. I am definitely not the best dancer out there and the only one thing I’m really good at cooking is Ramen! All the Mexicans I know are actually very far from being lazy in any way. We work our asses off and a majority of Mexicans I know are very successful in the businesses they are in. I grew up in your average household with my mom and dad and only 1 other sibling. My family is not big at all and not a single one of them has been to jail or involved in any gang related activities. One thing that will be sure to surprise you is that I’m really not a big fan of Mexican food at all so there is definitely no way that I could eat that every day! I have lived here in the U.S. my entire life and English was my first language that I learned. None of the Mexicans I know have an accent and surprisingly most Mexicans here in the U.S. can speak English pretty well.
So is this what you really think of me when you learn that I am a Mexican? Is this how you’ll always picture me?
By Lorin Perez
So Which Side of the Border Do I Belong?
I wasn’t brought up in “the barrio”
But I wasn’t raised in a white suburb either
I have never packed my car with relatives
But I would never just leave them to rot in a nursing home either
I’m not an amazing salsa dancer
But I’m not a lousy dander either
So which side of the border do I belong?
I’ve been called “illegal”
I’ve been called “gringa”
I was not born in Mexico but I am not white
So which side of the border do I belong to?
My mom makes turkey for Thanksgiving
But she makes tamales for Christmas
My dad works very hard every day of the week
But he is not a construction worker
My grandparents instilled American traditions in our family
But they didn’t let us forget our roots
So which side of the border do I belong?
I am a light skinned Hispanic
I don’t fit the stereotypical part of a Mexican girl
Yet I don’t fit the stereotypical part of a Caucasian female either
So which side of the border do I belong?
I can speak English
I’m not addicted to drugs
I have a passion for soccer
I love apple pie
I don’t want twenty kids
I like to put “chile” on my food
I enjoy country music
I don’t like PDA
I will graduate from college
I am religious
I am not racist
I would cry if my dog died
I am intelligent
I am not arrogant
I am unique
I am an individual
I am not only Mexican, and I am not only American
So which side of the border do I belong to?
By Gilisa Walls
I decided to touch on the theory of labeling. In society today it has become the norm to place labels on those by what they wear, how they act, their skin color, and the people they hang around. I wrote a poem based on some of the things I have been labeled and how it makes me feel and how I respond to those labels. I also touched on the topics of discrimination and prejudice because whenever talking about labeling you will always run into those issues as well. Labeling can be anything from calling you or a group of people certain names because of race, gender, beliefs, culture, etc. Most people don’t live up to the labels society places on them because society usually receives their source of information through the media, family values and beliefs, or the people they hang around or admire. Once people label you they feel as if they know exactly what you’re going to do, how you are going to act and react in any given situations. They base this off of past experiences from other people they have labeled the same as you.
If You’re Going to Label Me. . .
Label me as a rare form of a human not lesbian, black, or a female.
There’s only a few of my kind and we are very hard to find.
I’m the one that walks strong with my head high not letting the stereotypes get to me.
The one that knows I’m more than what this society labels me to be.
I’m a rare form of a human that realizes that, labels are only what you wear and put on, but you, you are just pure beauty from the inside out.
Society has labeled me as this stud, this black female, this statistic that all blacks are the same.
They don’t even label me the name that my mom created for me after carrying me for nine months.
They fail to realize that I’m not a part of the African American statistics and that my personality and attitude makes the substance of beauty within, distinguishing me from the rest.
Only a few of us know how to be more than what we are said to be and know how to reflect on the external judgment that comes for us.
From that first breath we breathe, to the time society sets a description of who we are on our lives, to the moments we cherish from overcoming the boundaries and perceptions of what “my kind” should do or how we should act.
There’s going to come a time when we do show weakness, that we like the same sex or that our skin is darker than others; but we, No I, won’t allow myself to let the obvious overtake my greatness.
But if you ever find one like me, that one that is one of a kind, don’t allow your prejudice ways make you assume that I’m just like the rest.
Don’t let your discrimination take over and you attack those of my kind because they are proud to be who they are.
Don’t be about of statistics that acts on prejudice and discrimination and attack or label those that are black.
Be the one that is will to get to know that rare form of a human.
Be the one to make a change towards equality instead of labeling us according to the definitions they give us on TV.
Henry Olsen, vice president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has a very detailed statistical analysis of the polls and predicts that President Obama will win tomorrow. He presents a detailed argument on no less than the National Review online, the programmatic heir of a racist white conservative tradition started by William Buckley, Republican intellectual and supporter of Jim Crow segregation and South African apartheid.
Olsen accents the extraordinary whiteness (especially southern whiteness) of the Republican Party and the 2012 vote, with an omission of the long historical context that other analysts of politics and racism like me have provided, but his conclusions are fascinating and must be very disturbing to Romney’s loyal base. He, not surprisingly, does not dig into the systemic racism of the past or present that lies behind his statistical figures.
He concludes much like more scholarly analysts with detailed historical and contemporary analyses that no matter the result, the Republican Party is in deep trouble:
Win or lose, we are in the twilight of the Age of Reagan. Romney’s efforts have almost recreated the Reagan coalition, but in today’s America that is no longer enough. To prevail in 2014 and beyond, the Republican party will need to learn to adapt its principles to new times and new voters. Echoing Rabbi Hillel, Reagan summoned conservatives to action with two related questions: If not us, who? If not now, when? We must take on this challenge anew as we undertake our rendezvous with destiny and remake the conservative majority Reagan bequeathed to us.
By new voters, he means the voters of color who are likely to make up more than a quarter of tomorrow’s voters, and increasing percentages in the future.
I grew up on the Gulf Coast of Texas, and so I’m used to hurricanes. Hurricane Celia was the Big One I lived through as a kid, and still have vivid memories of an entire rooftop of a house, floating down the street in front our house, a street which had become a river of debris. Today, I live in New York City where we’re all bracing for “Hurricane Sandy” and this has me pondering the politics of hurricane naming. At one time, we thought hurricane naming could be sexist ~ can names convey racial politics as well?
The practice of naming hurricanes has a long and complex history, once bringing in Greek letters, another round of numbering them, a couple hundred years of using Christian saints’ names, then the recent 40 years of sexism. It’s actually tropical storms that get named, and they retain their names once they reach hurricane strength. Naming storms, rather than, say, calling them by longitudinal and latitudinal numbers, serves a couple of functions: it’s a way to help people remember storms and it raises awareness about storm preparedness. Through most of my childhood, hurricanes were given female names, beginning with the letter “A” and running through the alphabet. That ended in 1978 when some feminists argued it was sexist to only use female names to designate storms. Since then, the World Meteorological Association has adopted the practice of alternating between male and female names. What does it mean that this storm has been designated “Sandy,” a name that spawns Internet memes that revolve around Olivia Newton-John as Sandy in “Grease” (as in this image below).
Over on the Twitter machine, I posed the question: “Is Sandy a white name?” A couple of folks (@KatyPearce) disagreed with me there, including Dr. Cherie Ann Turpin (@drturpin) who pointed out that black OR white are not mutually exclusive categories when it comes to names.
She makes an excellent point, but the Internet memes of white-Sandy-from-Grease churn on like the storm.
So, it begs the question: does it matter what name a storm gets called?
I think looking at storm-names, and the storm-naming process, can give us some insight into racial (and gender) politics. The fact is that naming storms is a process that’s steeped in both racism and sexism. Even though the names are (supposedly) approaching gender parity now, the sexism that still permeates the discussion prompts this guidance from the AP style tips page for reporters writing about storms:
- Hurricanes don’t have sexes, no matter what the name. They should be referred to as it, not he or she.
- Avoid bad and sexist puns when using hurricane names. AP’s hurricane entry in the stylebook is worth quoting in full: “And do not use the presence of a woman’s name as an excuse to attribute sexist images of women’s behavior to a storm. Avoid, for example, such sentences as: The fickle Hazel teased the Louisiana coast.”
It’s this that gives me pause about calls like the one by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) for more racial diversity in the naming of storms. Meteorology as an industry has been historically (pdf) marked by racial exclusion, yet when someone like Rep. Jackson Lee points out the results of this, she gets pilloried by right-wingers for arguing for “affirmative action” for hurricanes. That said, I fear the mindless racism that would be unleashed by naming a storm something that might be deemed identifiably African American.
Still, there’s some irony in the juxtaposition between the images of women featured on the front page of the World Meteorological Organization’s website - the organization that’s responsible for naming storms – and the image collectively conjured at the name “Sandy.” Perhaps it’s time for another change in storm-naming, maybe drawing on Mayan gods or supernatural beings, rather than reifying U.S. pop culture constructions of white femininity.