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studying whiteness Arrow vol 3 no 2 contents
About borderlands Volume 3 Number 2, 2004


Studying whiteness shouldn't be academic

Karen Brodkin
University of California, Los Angeles


This essay argues that the critical study of whiteness is best organized as part of a wider project of critical studies of racism, class, gender and sexuality in the service of creating a more democratic and just society, and not as a separate field of Whiteness Studies. It looks at some of the ways that studying whiteness can be of use to movements for social justice in Los Angeles as an example.

1. I have long been uneasy about embracing a project called studying whiteness, instead of, say, studying white racism. The way we name a concept means something. In the early days of women’s studies, people confused studying women with studying gender dynamics, culture and social structure from feminist perspectives. People who hadn’t a clue that society and culture institutionalized male dominance thought they were quite qualified to teach women’s studies. Whiteness carries some of the same baggage.

2. To name a subject whiteness, dissociated from racism as a historical system of institutionalized political, economic and ideological domination, separates a subset of antiracist studies and scholars from the wider intellectual heritage of anti-racist scholarship. It also de-links studying whiteness from the current scholarship that carries on that intellectual project—critical race theory, ethnic studies, feminist theories, especially by women of color and postcolonial feminist theories. Separating work on white racism from this radical heritage can limit its utility for analyzing racism today.

3. Everyone wouldn’t necessarily define the enterprise of studying whiteness this way. But it does highlight two lines of debate that are implicit in recent criticisms of working-class whiteness scholarship: how studies of whiteness treat the dialectic between structure and agency; and what kind of transformative project studying whiteness is part of (Arnesan 2001).

4. The structure-agency dialectic is a perennial tension, and not just in studies of whiteness. On the one hand, one of the strengths of recent whiteness scholarship is that it illuminates the ways in which whites believe deeply in their entitlement to institutionalized privileges, and act to keep them. It unpacks whiteness as an enacted political identity in daily life and in collective action. On the other hand, an exclusive attention to the agency and identities of working-class, poor and ethnic white people risks disconnecting white racism from racism as a historically institutionalized system—which could boomerang and reinforce the notion that white workers and their problems are the measure of the working class and its legitimate discontents.

5. There’s also kind of academic and political TINA (There Is No Alternative). The academy encourages a particular kind of nuanced, complex scholarship that represents the world as it is, in all its racism, greed, and conservatism. Looking for transformative potentials opens one up to charges of romanticism. But if all we do is analyze white racism, we run the risk of feeding mainstream common sense-- that racism, ethnocentrism and xenophobia are natural and inevitable.

6. Which leads to the question of what kind of transformative project is whiteness part of? Eric Arnesen (2001) has charged that the project of whiteness studies is an answer to why the working-class hasn’t united against capital. Put this way the question presumes that class is an essential and natural identity and that history has an inevitable trajectory. To the extent that studies of whiteness attend to social change (and not all do), they do it as part of a project shared with critical race theories, feminisms, queer theories and marxisms. All these perspectives take the question of political subjects as anything but predetermined or natural. They also presume identities to be always works-in-progress, constituted on multiple axes, and part of a contradictory repertoire of possible identities. Studying whiteness this way directs our attention to whites’ ambivalence about what racial privilege and entitlement costs them in terms of identities not lived. Likewise, understanding identities as constituted on multiple axes reveals a hidden life at the heart of whiteness about preserving a set of specifically white constructions of masculinity and femininity, which have undermined anti-racist efforts.

7. This project is not academic. The Presidency of George Bush II has been destructive and terrifying. The rapid fire indiscriminate retaliation on the Afghan populace after September 11, ratcheting up racial profiling, curtailing civil liberties, along with large-scale corporate welfare and corruption, contrast with FBI and CIA incompetence or indifference to preventing real terrorism at home. Bush’s globally aggressive moves against an "axis of evil," assert not just the agenda of U.S. capital, but its far-right wing. The huge demonstrations in U.S. cities and the growing criticism from the U.S. military and the families of soldiers are signs that progressive politics is recovering. But it is also quite an uphill climb, even to make it back to where we were on September 10, 2001.

8. Critical race/whiteness scholarship can help in analyzing what’s worked and what hasn’t in building movements for interracial social justice. How have some movements unwittingly reproduced white privileges? What strategies work against doing this? What’s going on racially now that the dynamics aren’t just black and white? Are there identities and strategies that open up wider visions of social justice? Works on whiteness have looked at these questions historically, in situations where white racism wasn’t "supposed to be" according to older progressive thinking, or where white people were trying unsuccessfully to overcome it, or where they believed they already had, especially in the context of movements for social justice.

9. I’ve begun to think about these questions in Los Angeles. Prior to September 11, Los Angeles had a dynamic Latino-led labor movement. HERE, the Hotel and Restaurant Workers union, SEIU and Justice for Janitors, new immigrant workers, mainly from Mexico and Central America revitalized labor and were beginning to build a community-based labor movement. The new leadership of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor managed to persuade the AFL-CIO bureaucracy to attend to immigrants’ rights and oppose employer sanctions. Although economic recession and the decline of tourism in the wake of 9-11 affected these workers and their unions deeply, they continue to organize.

10. In Los Angeles today, almost all of the progressive political activism among whites has been initiated and is led by Latino, African American, and Asian American activists. Community unionism has mobilized white progressives, churches and students from working- and middle-class backgrounds in a variety of local efforts. HERE began a community movement to establish a living wage, first for contractors who received city and county funding, and most recently, for all large businesses in Santa Monica’s tourist zone. This last campaign is being fought tooth and nail by the big hotels. Against their money, SMART, Santa Monica’s community-based living wage group, has mobilized large numbers of volunteers of color and white, to pass a living wage ordinance and to mobilize around several hotel-sponsored efforts against it. Justice for Janitors has won widespread public support across LA’s racial spectrum. The Bus Riders’ Union, led by activists of color has led a successful race discrimination suit against city’s mass transit system for starving the bus system upon which people of color depend while building expensive rail transit that serves mainly white suburban commuters. Communities for a Better Environment, an environmental justice group led by people of color, blocked building a power plant in a predominantly Latina/o and highly polluted industrial area of Los Angeles County, and environmental justice more generally has growing support among white environmentalists. I can think of no comparable white-initiated counterparts to these movements. The last visible one, the largely white feminist movement has been silent since it drove Operation Rescue out of town over a decade ago.

11. And yet, Los Angeles is a city that is deeply divided racially: Its hourglass demographics and the provision of health, education and welfare are racially unequal. Its politics are racial—and complex: The city’s last mayor, Richard Riordan, was a rich white businessman who beat out Mike Woo, a Chinese American city councillor; its current mayor, Jim Hahn, also white, had support from conservative whites and from African Americans that helped him beat out Antonio Villaraigosa, a progressive Latino assembly member with strong labor backing. The Los Angeles Uprising forced white Daryl Gates to step down as police chief, but the LAPD forced out the two African American police chiefs who succeeded him.

12. Race is at the center of grass roots politics too. Groups and movements among young people seem to have a greater repertoire for talking about race and privilege and about multiple axes of power more generally. Movements led by older generations, most notably the labor movement, have inherited a deeply race-avoidant culture, and are struggling to think in new ways. They are seeking out organizers from among young activists across the racial and ethnic spectrum. How do young activists of color and white activists respond and contribute to the labor movement and to movements across the generational divide? What kinds of racial discourses and politics do they build in their own organizations? Embedded in groups and their political strategies are constructions of political actors, from colorless, genderless workers to a multiplicity of racially, class and gender specific actors. The identities, or the ways groups present themselves as actors when they engage politically shape more than success of a particular struggle. They shape what issues can and can't be dealt with, who can and cannot participate, and what information can be shared. These are issues that Angeleno activists grapple with on a daily basis and where scholarly collaboration can be helpful. To do this, scholarship on whiteness needs to situate itself fully in the wider anti-racist project, and to analyze both the specific ways that whiteness deforms multiracial resistance, and the contradictions within whiteness that animate whites to support and join these movements.

Karen Brodkin teaches Anthropology and Women's Studies at UCLA. She's a longtime activist academic, and author of How Jews Became White Folks. She's currently working on two projects about activism in Los Angeles. Email:


Arnesen, E. (2001) ‘Scholarly Controversy: Whiteness and the Historians' Imagination,’ International Labor and Working-Class History 60, Fall, pp. 3-32.

© borderlands ejournal 2004


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