Thursday, June 21, 2012

Critical interrogations of whiteness

I have been trekking through a book for the past two weeks, "White women, race matters: The social construction of whiteness" by Ruth Frankenberg (1993).  Part of the trek was due to my lack of familiarity with feminist theory.   After I did some background reading, I was able to better contextualize this work.  I also learned that feminist theory is quite useful for framing and discussing oppression, privilege, inequality and racism.  Standpoint theory, concepts of oppression (Frye, 1983) and privilege (Bailey, 2004; McIntosh, 1990) are particularly helpful in understanding and placing Frankenberg's work.

Standpoint theory is basically that a person’s standpoint (i.e. gender, race, class, etc.) determines how s/he views the world.   The dominant people, those at the top of society, do not clearly view those below them, while those in subordinate positions are able to see both their own position, as well as those in the dominant position.  While standpoint theory would suggest that those who are oppressed or subordinate in some way  could understand the oppression of other people more easily, there are some limitations.  For example, while it would seem that White women should be able to empathize with the perspective of people of color, women of color were historically excluded from the feminist movement.  While the White feminists had an understanding of oppression (i.e. "systematically related barriers and forces not of one's own making"), the understanding of the opposite side of the coin, that of White privilege (i.e. "unearned assets conferred systematically"), was not at the forefront of the feminist dialogue at that time.  Frankenberg documents how White identity prevented White women from seeing outside the hegemonic White Discourse.  In other words, it was not obvious that racism did and does also shape the experience of White women. 

In her book, Frankenberg discusses how many White women moved from anti-racist movements to the feminist movement.  However, the second wave feminist movement was dominated by White women's perspective, which marginalized and ignored the experience of women of color.  This is the intervention Frankenberg makes with her study, a series of interviews with 30 White women in the 1980s in California.   The women came from a wide range of backgrounds (i.e. ages, class, sexual orientation, place of origin, etc.); however, her sample did provide a disproportionate number of women who had been involved in the feminist movement and/or interracial relationships (i.e. partners and/or children).  Specifically, she uses interracial relationships as a focal point for examining the dominant discourse (or discursive repertoires) regarding race. 

Frankenberg defines racial difference as social constructed and historically located, which I see as related to the cycle of socialization (Harro, 2010).  We are socialized into ideologies by our families and institutions so we don’t even recognize them; the ideologies are considered to be the norm.  Whereas White people have often assumed that people of color have a racial identity and that they are affected by racism, they have largely been unaware of also being “racialized.”  Frankenberg holds that “Whiteness” is also socially constructed and has changed over time.  The very language that racializes the “other” (i.e. Native Americans, Hispanic, blacks and Asians) also defines Whiteness. 

Through critical discourse analysis, Frankenberg found that the White women in her study adopted one predominant discourse, a power- and color-evasive language (similar to Bonilla-Silva’s “color-blind racism”).  In other words, the women avoided or talked around issues of race, privilege, power and inequality. However, Frankenberg notes that for most of the history of the U.S. the concept of race has been defined in terms of biological difference or genetics.  This “essentialist racism” maintained that different phenotypical "races" were essentially different and hierarchical.  Therefore, the power- and color evasive discourse was marked by undercurrents of this essentialist racism.  Some of the women had escaped the cycle of socialization; they realized that racism did affect their loved ones and themselves and decided to move in an antiracist direction.  Frankenberg marked this as a “race cognizant” discourse.  Again, the power- and color-evasive discourse sometimes still subverted race cognizance in these women’s narratives, displaying the power of this hegemonic discourse.

Haviland's (2008) study also involves discourse analysis in an all-White setting.  Her results parallels and corroborates with the works of Frankenberg (1993) and Bonilla-Silva (2002, 2003).  Her particular niche is examining interactional White discourse in a setting that was intended to actually combat racism.  She found that "White educational discourse" prevented pre-service teachers in a multicuturalism seminar from moving beyond their racist perceptions.  Even the instructors of the seminar seemed unable to escape this discourse.  Semantic moves such as avoiding certain words, false starts, claiming uncertainty, and silence enabled participants to never confront each other about racially biased attitudes.  This discourse carried over into the classroom where a seminar participant was a student teacher.  She was unsuccessful in combating racism in the elementary school classroom because of her lack of awareness of the White educational discourse. 

The implications of this study are important for teacher educators, university supervisors, and cooperating educators, but also for other activists who wish to help White people overcome racist ideologies.  Haviland suggests actually using the "White educational discourse" against itself.  By staying within the norms of the students' culture, but still confronting racist perceptions, she hopes that they might be more open to changing racist perceptions.  Haviland's (2008) study, along with Frankenberg's (1993) and Bonilla-Silva's (2003) studies, are indispensable for researchers who wish to conduct qualitative research with regard to racism in all-White settings. 

  1. Bailey, A. (2004). Privilege: Expanding on Marilyn Frye’s “Oppression.” In L. M. Heldke & P. O’Connor (Eds.), Oppression, privilege, and resistance: Theoretical perspectives on racism, sexism, and heterosexism (pp. 301–316). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
  2. Bonilla-Silva, E. (2002). The linguistics of color blind racism: How to talk nasty about blacks without sounding “racist.” Critical Sociology (Brill Academic Publishers), 28(1/2), 41.
  3. Bonilla-Silva, E. (2003). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield.
  4. Frankenberg, R. (1993). White women, race matters: The social construction of whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  5. Frye, M. (1983). The politics of reality: Essays in feminist theory. Crossing Press feminist series. Trumansburg, N.Y: Crossing Press.
  6. Harro, B. (2010). The cycle of socialization. In M. Adams, W. J. Blumenfeld, & H. W. Hackman (Eds.), Readings for diversity and social justice (2nd ed., pp. 45–51). New York: Routledge.
  7. Haviland, V. (2008). “Things get glossed over”: Rearticulating the silencing power of whiteness in education. Journal of Teacher Education, 59(1), 40–54. doi:10.1177/0022487107310751
  8. McIntosh, P. (1990). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Independent School, 49, 31.

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