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Ten Things to Keep in Mind When Talking About How White Men are a "Problem" in the Age of Obama

We are finally talking in an explicit way about what it means to be white (and male) in America.

Some of these conversations have been necessitated by the country's demographic changes.

The election of Barack Obama (twice), and the Republican Party's deep devotion to the politics of white racial resentment have also helped to force a national conversation about the meaning of Whiteness.

And as I and others have talked about in great detail, the recent murder sprees in Newtown and Aurora, where young white men have killed people by the dozens, have demanded that we discuss the relationship(s) between white masculinity, gun culture, and violence.

Many white folks have not responded well to these types of conversations.

Despite the opposition and shrill voices, the flurry of discussions online and in the mainstream media about the meaning of Whiteness in the Age of Obama is a positive development.

What was once an inside game of Left leaning cultural critics, scholars, and social justice types is now more fashionable and mainstream. As such, a chorus of voices are joining the conversation.

Many of these new voices are tempted, quite naturally, to call out the the deleterious impact of Whiteness and White elites on America (slavery; Jim and Jane Crow; racial inequality; labor market and housing discrimination; wealth inequality; genocide against First Nations people; the Great Recession caused by an almost exclusively white financier and banking class), as well as the world (Colonialism and Imperialism; environmental destruction; two World Wars).

These moves are exhilarating. Yet, they often lack precision, a thinking through of end goals, and a consideration of the long plan going forward.

Despite what some would believe, writing and research about the meaning of Whiteness and White Privilege did not begin with Peggy McIntosh's widely read essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.

However, many people have discovered that popular essay and have stopped there.

One must not forget that there is a rich literature on Whiteness, as well as the social, political, and cultural history of "white" people in the West and the Americas.

For example, W.E.B. Du Bois, one of America's greatest intellectuals, was writing about the twin concepts of Whiteness and White Privilege more than one hundred years ago. Andrew Saxton, Theodore Allen, Hubert Harrison, and others did foundational work in thinking about Whiteness, class, politics, and race in the early to mid twentieth century.

More recent scholarship by a range of academics such as Noel Ignatiev, David Roediger, Thandeka, Ruth Frankenberg, Matthew Frye Jacobson, Cheryl Harris, Richard Dyer, Toni Morrison, Ian Haney-Lopez, Charles Mills, George Yancy, Joe Feagin, and Nell Irvin Painter have explored Whiteness--its history, psychology, and meaning--in deep and meaningful ways.

Gifted African-American writer-philosopher-artist-intellectuals like James Baldwin and Richard Wright also talked against Whiteness and the "curious ways" of white folks in their fiction and non-fiction works.

Of course, Tim Wise is one of the foremost public intellectuals and activists discussing Whiteness in the United States today.

I would not expect that the average person who is interested in exploring Whiteness and White Privilege would sit down an become an expert on the topic.

That would be an absurd standard which would prevent many good and insightful voices from participating in this much needed conversation. But, we should all strive to be more rigorous in how we think about and discuss these matters.

As someone who has written about, researched, and thought a great deal about Whiteness, I would like offer the following suggestions and guidelines for our "national conversation" going forward:

1. When we talk about "Whiteness" what do we mean? Defining terms is essential here. Alternatively, are you talking about white people as individuals? Are you thinking about some sense of shared identity among and between white people? Are you trying to explore the connections between white people and white racism? These are important distinctions.

2. Not all white people are "White" in the same way. How do class, gender, age, sexuality, ability status, ethnicity, and other identities impact a given person's relationship to Whiteness? Have you thought about the difference between an inherently politicized type of White identity that is inseparable from White Privilege, and one where there are individual "white" people who are located in different ways relative to these social institutions?

3. Race is a social construct. It is also real. Race and racism are also relatively recent inventions. Race and its meaning have changed over time in the United States and the West. It also has some long running historical continuities.

When you are talking about "Whiteness is..." or "White people are..." what do you mean specifically? Is this true in some time periods, places, and not others? Is it a constant? How do you separate those categories?

4. White people who are not conscious (or in profound denial) about White Privilege tend to have a very different understanding of how American society actually works as compared to those of us who have thought about and researched these topics. Where do these myths come from? Why do so many white people actually believe that America is a meritocracy, that racism is "dead," or that they are somehow disadvantaged and "oppressed" by "affirmative action" or "reverse-racism?" The answers to these questions are very important in thinking about how we discuss Whiteness with white people.

5. If you are a white person who is writing about Whiteness, are you unconsciously reproducing systems and patterns of White Privilege and Whiteness in your own outreach, scholarship, and activism? As a white person who is writing and thinking about Whiteness, have you taken your own personal accounting of how you are invested in these systems (or not)?

6. When discussing Whiteness and White Privilege, are you also thinking in a systematic way about both institutions and structures? Are you asking yourself about how they relate to one another?

7. It is increasingly common following the Newtown massacre, the Aurora shootings, and in response to the racially resentful conspiranoid fantasies of the Republican Party and the Right in the Age of Obama, that Whiteness and White Masculinity are being described as "pathological" in nature.

We have to be careful here: pathology means something sick, maladaptive, destructive, or disease-like. The label "pathological" is often imposed by the in-group on the out-group, from the powerful on to the less powerful, in order to legitimate and naturalize social inequality and injustice.

But before surrendering to the allure of words such "pathological," we must ask ourselves the following question: how has Whiteness actually hurt its owners economically, politically, or socially?

As Joe Feagin discusses in his book White Party, White Government, White Privilege has long been sustained and supported by the United States government. White people have enjoyed huge transfers of resources to create the suburbs, develop land and property under the Homestead Act, go to college and universities under the G.I. Bill, as well as many other opportunities that were systematically denied to people of color.

White people are also the single wealthiest group, by orders of magnitude, in the United States. This was largely because of how white racism enabled the amassing and transfer of vast amounts of inter-generational wealth within the white community to the exclusion of others.

Given its history, Whiteness may reasonably be viewed as something pathological, violent, unethical, immoral, dangerous, and threatening to those who are not classified as white. However, Whiteness has been enormously beneficial and lucrative to its owners. White elites certainly have benefited from it. Regular white folks, both men and women, have certainly benefited from Whiteness too.

And yes, white elites have also been able to use racism as a wedge issue to hurt the white poor by separating them from people of color with whom they may have common interests. How do these facts complicate a discussion of Whiteness as something that is "pathological?"

8. While there is a public discussion about the meaning of Whiteness in this political and social moment, we must be cautious. Racial inequality is one of the greatest social problems in the United States. Class inequality is gutting the American Dream. White elites have been central to these destructive processes. Some have tried to intervene in positive ways, while most have continued to support these systems because they directly benefit from them.

Because discussing race in post-civil rights America is seen by many people as somehow being "racist," a critical conversation about Whiteness could actually reinforce a fictitious narrative of white victimology and oppression.

Moreover, by recentering Whiteness in our conversations about social justice, there is always the risk that the day-to-day struggles faced by people of color in American society, one that remains steeped in racial inequality, will be overlooked.

9. It is important to discuss Whiteness and how individual white people are invested in White Privilege. One cannot overlook the fact that there are also black and brown folks who are deeply invested in maintaining White Privilege as well.

How does a consideration of people like Clarence Thomas, Herman Cain, Michelle Malkin, Jesse Peterson, Allen West, and others inform your discussions of Whiteness? Is Whiteness just skin deep? Or is there something else much more challenging and problematic going on here?

10. Never forget that "colorblindness" in post civil rights America is a type of common sense logic which actually does the work of white racism by encouraging the public to overlook racial inequality and injustice.

Any discussion of Whiteness and White Privilege should be highly sensitive to this fact. Acknowledging the realities of race and racial inequality are not wrong. The values which are assigned to racial difference, and how some people are invested in normalizing racially unequal outcomes, is the real social problem.


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