“This very powerful volume touches many nerves in contemporary cultural politics. Its collected essays take various perspectives and collectively—and sometimes individually—engage various contradictions. It’s a disturbing, engaging, sometimes frustrating, deeply affecting book.”—Kathleen Stewart, author of A Space on the Side of the Road: Cultural Poetics in an “Other” America
The Making and Unmaking of Whitenessby Birgit Brander Rasmussen (Editor), Irene J. Nexica (Editor), Matt Wray (Editor), Eric Klinenberg (Editor)
Bringing together new articles and essays from the controversial Berkeley conference of the same name, The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness presents a fascinating range of inquiry into the nature of whiteness. Representing academics, independent scholars, community organizers, and antiracist activists, the contributors are all leaders in the “second/i>
- Editorial Reviews
- Product Details
- Related Subjects
- Read an Excerpt
- What People Are Saying
- Meet the author
Bringing together new articles and essays from the controversial Berkeley conference of the same name, The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness presents a fascinating range of inquiry into the nature of whiteness. Representing academics, independent scholars, community organizers, and antiracist activists, the contributors are all leaders in the “second wave” of whiteness studies who collectively aim to combat the historical legacies of white supremacy and to inform those who seek to understand the changing nature of white identity, both in the United States and abroad.
With essays devoted to theories of racial domination, comparative global racisms, and transnational white identity, the geographical reach of the volume is significant and broad. Dalton Conley writes on “How I Learned to Be White.” Allan Bérubé discusses the intersection of gay identity and whiteness, and Mab Segrest describes the spiritual price white people pay for living in a system of white supremacy. Other pieces examine the utility of whiteness as a critical term for social analysis and contextualize different attempts at antiracist activism. In a razor-sharp introduction, the editors not only raise provocative questions about the intellectual, social, and political goals of those interested in the study of whiteness but assess several of the topic’s major recurrent themes: the visibility of whiteness (or the lack thereof); the “emptiness” of whiteness as a category of identification; and conceptions of whiteness as a structural privilege, a harbinger of violence, or an institutionalization of European imperialism.
Contributors. William Aal, Allan Bérubé, Birgit Brander Rasmussen, Dalton Conley, Troy Duster, Ruth Frankenberg, John Hartigan Jr., Eric Klinenberg, Eric Lott, Irene J. Nexica, Michael Omi, Jasbir Kaur Puar, Mab Segrest, Vron Ware, Howard Winant, Matt Wray
LiP Book Review
- Duke University Press Books
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.75(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)
Read an Excerpt
The making and unmaking of whiteness
By Birgit Brander Rasmussen
Duke University Press
Chapter OneDalton Conley
Universal Freckle, or How I Learned to Be White
I am not your typical middle-class white male. I am middle-class, despite the fact that my parents had no money; I am white, but I grew up in an inner city housing project where most everyone was black or Hispanic. I enjoyed a range of privileges that were denied my neighbors but that most Americans take for granted. In fact, my childhood was like a social science experiment: Find out what being middle-class really means by raising a kid from a "good" family in a "bad" neighborhood. Define whiteness by putting a light-skinned kid in the midst of a community of color. If the exception proves the rule, I'm that exception.
Ask any African American to list the adjectives that describe him, and he will most likely put black or African American at the top of the list. Ask someone of European descent the same question, and white will be far down on the list, if at all. Not so for me. I've studied whiteness the way I would a foreign language. I know its grammar, its parts of speech; I know the subtleties of its idioms, its vernacular words and phrases to which the native speaker has never given a second thought. For example, I had to learn that I was supposed to look white people in the eye when I spoke to them, that it didn't mean that I wanted to "throw down"-challenge them to afight. I learned that snapping that someone's mother was so poor that she put a Big Mac on layaway was not taken with good humor. There's an old saying that you never really know your own language until you learn another. It's the same with race. In fact, race is nothing more than a language, a set of stories we tell ourselves to get through the world, to organize our reality.
In learning this language of race, and thereby learning to be white, I was no different than European culture as a whole. Early modern conceptions of the white race-in fact of all races-stemmed from confrontation with and domination of peoples outside the European sphere. As the story goes, scientific theories of race arose in tandem with the ascent of colonialism. In 1684, Francois Bernier, a French physician who had traveled widely, published an article in a Parisian journal on the subject of human differences. "The geographers up until this point," he claimed, "have divided the world up only according to the different countries or regions." He then suggested a novel classification scheme based on the facial lineaments and bodily conformations of the peoples of the world. Bernier proceeded to divide the world's peoples into four categories: the Europeans, the Far Easterners, the blacks, and the Lapps. Native Americans he did not classify as a separate people or lump in any of his four groupings. Less than a century later, another Frenchman, George-Louis LeClerc Buffon, formally categorized the "races" of the world as part of a larger project of classifying all living species, published in the forty-four-volume Histoire naturelle (1749-1804). With the publication of these and related volumes, the modern European conception of race was born.
These early conceptions of race, however, were quite different than those commonly held today in the scientific community or by the public at large. Back then, racial differences were seen as a result of local climates and thus mutable-fluid both within and across generations. In fact, in 1787, the Reverend Mr. Samuel Stanhope Smith (president of the College of New Jersey-now Princeton University) wrote that dark skins could be considered a "universal freckle." Early modern racial theorists such as Smith believed that, over the course of several generations in a different climate, racial attributes would gradually change to adapt to local conditions. That is, northern peoples would get progressively darker, and darker peoples would loose their pigmentation with migration.
Almost three centuries after Bernier carved up the world according to his schema of physical attributes, my white parents crossed over the contemporary equivalent of a racial border, moving into a nonprofit housing project on the Lower East Side of New York City. Compressed into the area of two city blocks, our housing complex had a population comparable to the town of Carbondale, Pennsylvania, where my mother had grown up before moving to New York. It was composed of mostly African American and Puerto Rican families; we were one of the few white households. What distinguished my family from our neighbors was not so much the color of our skin per se as it was how we had arrived at the buildings in which we lived out our lives. The essential difference was that we had some degree of choice about whether to live there or not. Our black and Hispanic neighbors, for the most part, did not. This difference was a whiteness lesson that I would not learn until much later, when I was deciding as an adult where in New York to live. As for my parents, my father was a painter, my mother a writer; in short, they had no money. But still, white poor people have choices in America that minorities do not enjoy. They could have lived in a white, working-class neighborhood in the outer boroughs or in New Jersey, for example. Our neighbors were not so lucky, however, being largely unwelcome elsewhere on account of the fact that they would probably lower property values because of the linkage between race and economics in our society.
That is, white neighborhoods are consistently worth more than black neighborhoods with similar housing stock. This pattern is maintained by the fact that when a white neighborhood just begins to integrate (usually somewhere around the 10 to 20 percent minority range) many of the white residents move out, fearing that the neighborhood will "tip" from white to black, depressing their housing values. Of course, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Property values drop since whites, who make up most of the demand for housing, sell in droves and flood the market.
Likewise, when whites move into a minority neighborhood with low housing values, prices start to climb, and these early, "pioneer" whites reap the profits. Through these waves of neighborhood succession, whites manage to squeeze dollars out of the symbolic advantage of their race. Though they were "pioneers," there was no such luck for my parents since the projects were not part of the private market and white "gentrification" would never take place there. That said, given their ostensible other options, I have often wondered why my parents made the choices they did in 1968. Whenever I ask them, they tell stories about having to move quickly because of a vendetta against my mother on the part of a burglar she had caught and prosecuted. But I think the real answer is somewhat along the lines of the reason white kids in the suburbs now buy more rap music than any other group: the mystique of the "ghetto," an attraction to the other that many middle-class individuals experience today. Such is the strange political economy of race in contemporary America. It is a political economy in which whites like my sister's husband, who grew up across the river in northern New Jersey, memorize rap lyrics and pine to be darker or at least to be called "white chocolate." It is a political economy where rap artists themselves brag at how "project" they are to sell records to these white teenagers. The essential rule of this racial-cultural system is that it is acceptable for whites to appropriate African American culture, but it is considered "passing" or being an "Uncle Tom" when blacks attempt to adopt white cultural practices in terms of modes of speech, dress, and so on. Though this gravitation toward blackness appears at first glance to be rooted in a romanticized kinship, its appeal is, in a counterintuitive way, a mechanism by which whites assert their cultural dominance, their right to tread on other people's cultural turf.
Back in 1968, long before the Sugar Hill Gang recorded the first, mass-marketed rap lyrics, my parents answered an advertisement in the tabloid Daily News soliciting applications for a newly minted housing complex not far from their tenement walk-up. An entire stretch of Manhattan, almost a mile long, from Fourteenth Street to well below Houston Street is lined with projects. As my parents strolled down Avenue D, every few blocks the brown-bricked projects changed in name and only slightly in style. The Jacob Riis houses melted into the Lillian Wald projects and then the Bernard Baruch houses, names that held little meaning for most of the residents who occupied them. Not only did the buildings look like each other, they looked exactly the same over the course of decades. Man landed on the moon; the Oil Shock of 1973 came; business cycles rolled by; but nothing about the projects gave any sign of societal change. There was never any new construction or renovation. And since they were brick, there was never even a new coat of paint. They constituted an unchanging monument to the social policy of their time.
The social texture of the neighborhood stood in stark contrast to the physical flavor. While the projects cast a stoic, oppressive shadow over Avenue D, the real street life was on the other side of the road, which was lined with dilapidated tenements. Many of the buildings were condemned or boarded up, often burned out for insurance money by the landlords themselves. However, almost every building that still functioned as a residence (and even some that did not) enjoyed an active storefront. Men sat in front of these bodegas and restaurants playing dominoes while children ran to and fro in front of them, their mothers sitting on the hoods of cars or standing, rocking infants on their hips. When it was hot, fire hydrants were opened by residents and kids congregated around them, taking turns ducking into the forceful stream. Back then, the fire department had not yet issued caps with holes pricked into them to allow for moderate streams of water flow. So, instead, the city fought a constant battle with overheated residents. Every so often, a fireman showed up and turned off the water. This would last for only about half an hour or so, before someone with the special wrench turned the flow back on. To an outsider, the kids seemed to roam freely, but in reality everyone was watching everyone else's children; there was a degree of community-based social control that would not have been obvious to the casual observer. The same can be said for the traffic. Cars seemed to disobey most parking restrictions since traffic enforcement was a low priority in this neighborhood. Despite this lack of state control, cars flowed slowly but freely up and down the avenue, following their own logic much like the children; traffic jams were hardly ever a problem. Men washed their cars with soapy buckets of water that came from the same gushing hydrants the kids played in. Others kept all four doors and the trunk open to blast salsa music to the entire block. In short, during the summer months the entire neighborhood seemed to be partying all the time. During winter, the street life went a bit dormant, receding into the apartments that served as spores to preserve social relations until the next spring.
When my parents finally arrived to the advertised set of buildings, they appeared different from the other projects in the area. For one, they were yellow-bricked. Masryk Towers, as the place was called, had its own security force and its own grant from the government as part of the latest social science initiative to integrate the working class with the non-working class. Little did my mother know that the security guards did little to stop the violence that would parallel our lives-cops getting shot in the elevator, hostages being taken in the pharmacy, or girls getting raped in the stairwell. These future tragedies my mother could not foresee. At the time, she was impressed with the layout. Six buildings surrounded a central courtyard area. The central area of the project contained a series of three small playgrounds, roughly gradated by age group, each hosting games of caps, ring-a-levio, Spalding baseball, and manhunt. The complex had trees and grass and its own ecosystem of wildlife that ranged from the tropical-huge cockroaches and water bugs-to the temperate, in the form of thick-furred squirrels. It was springtime-the trees were lush with white blossoms, and the grass was thick. To my mother, the grass seemed greener than any she had ever seen, but maybe that was only in contrast to the hot, glass-littered concrete that covered the rest of the neighborhood.
Despite the horrible reputation of the "inner city," high crime rates, pollution, and graffiti on every conceivable surface, my mother described our neighborhood as an idyllic landscape to raise children. We had the "ghetto penthouse"-as my sister and I liked to call living on the twenty-first, top floor, too young to realize the tastelessness of our monicker. We could see the hills of New Jersey out of one window and the farthest reaches of Queens from the other. If we didn't look straight down at all the burnt-out, boarded-up slums, we enjoyed a river-to-river view of the Manhattan skyline. The irony was that we had immovable bars bolted into the window jambs, obscuring the view. There was good reason for this. Once when we were away, my parents left a window open. A cat burglar tied the fire hose to the railing on the roof and swung into the kitchen window, proceeding to liquidate the entire house through the front door. Thinking we merely had to keep the windows shut and locked, we did the best we could to replace our television set and other semivaluable belongings. The next time we were gone he crashed through the window feet first and emptied out our apartment anew, leaving a trail of broken glass and blood to the front door. Finally, my parents had to invest in bars. They could only afford the cheapest kind. These least expensive window gates could not be opened or unlocked, and a prison-like barrier marred our river-to-river view.
Maybe to assuage her own sense of guilt for having raised my sister and me in a dangerous area (two of our close friends would be shot in the fourteen years we lived there), my mother constantly reminded us of how beautiful our surroundings were. "Look at the birds," she might say as she led us across the complex by a tightly gripped hand. "Ooh, there's a robin." I would refuse to look as she pointed out some brightly colored bird that stood out from the gray pigeons. She stood out as well, humming audibly as she strolled through the projects with her flowing dresses and her mismatched, brightly colored socks. She appreciated the colorful graffiti in the same way she liked the birds, for their purely aesthetic value. She appeared oblivious to the power dynamics behind race and class that came to dominate my conscious life. To her, race was about having Goya beans and exotic vegetables like yucca stocked in our supermarket. In other words, it was more like ethnicity in that it was about culture and lifestyle choices. Or maybe it was the case that she knew exactly what was going on in terms of power dynamics under the surface and her way of subverting this system was to ignore it, becoming a passive resister on the cultural front. If you don't pay attention to race, her logic might have gone, it will lose its power; it is socially constructed, after all. I can only speculate what my mother was thinking (or not thinking) back in the 1960s and 1970s; she herself does not give an account of her presentation of self to the neighborhood.
Excerpted from The making and unmaking of whiteness by Birgit Brander Rasmussen Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Meet the Author
Birgit Brander Rasmussen is a doctoral candidate in the department of Comparative Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
Eric Klinenberg is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University.
Irene J. Nexica is an independent scholar who studies popular music and culture.
Matt Wray is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Birgit Brander Rasmussen is Assistant Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity, Race and Migration at Yale University. She is the co-editor of The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness (Duke, 2001).
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews