Honky Blues

Abolish whiteness! say the advocates of white studies, academia's latest -- and most bewildering -- theory of race relations."

Published July 3, 1997 3:27PM (EDT)

in his self-published book, "Bomb the Suburbs," William Upski Wimsat tells the story of his evolution as a "wigger" -- a white kid carving a niche for himself by listening to hip-hop and "acting black." "The wigger," he says, "can go a long way toward repairing the sickness of race in America." He was mocked by his peers, scorned by his elders and courted by trashy talk-show producers. Almost everyone had an opinion of him (usually less than favorable), and he rarely drew a mild reaction.

What do we make of someone like Wimsat? Ask a handful of experts and
they'd probably have a hard time figuring out whether he's a poseur or a
hero. Viewed through the lens of "whiteness studies" -- the trendiest and
most perplexing new field in academia -- it could easily go either way. A
mix of liberal anti-racism, muddled postmodern theory and embarrassing
white guilt, the study of "whiteness" has opened the floodgates of a new scholarly market. And with over 70 books, hundreds of journal articles and two recent conferences on the subject, it has all the trappings of a bona fide movement. But how far it'll be moving -- and what it actually has to teach us about race -- is less than clear.

scholars of "whiteness" -- a term encompassing everything culturally "white," from Vivaldi to hockey -- are fascinated with "crossover" figures like Wimsat. Indeed, he can be seen as practicing an idea that many of them have been thinking and writing about: that rejecting the privileges of being white might make those privileges disappear. So go ahead, act black. Sporting dreadlocks is a political action. If we can make whiteness go away, they seem to say, we'll be doing a favor for people of all races. It's not an idea that's coming out of nowhere, either. Award-winning historians have written highly praised books on "race treason" and "the abolition of whiteness." If this raises doubts about ivory-tower radicalism, there's also the matter of self-preservation. Plenty of scholars are so caught up in looking at their own whiteness that maybe they don't want it to disappear.

So why whiteness? At the crossroads of multiculturalism and critical theory in the academy, it was almost inevitable. With black studies, Latino studies and women's studies already institutionalized, why not examine what it means to be white? It isn't a question that's never been asked before. Shortly after World War II, when a French reporter questioned black American writer Richard Wright about "the Negro problem" in the United States, he replied, "There isn't a Negro problem, there is only a white problem." It was an idea echoed later by Malcolm X and other black radicals.

Today's scholars have taken it a bit further, though. Two men at the forefront of the field are historians, David Roediger and Noel Ignatiev. Roediger's 1991 book "The Wages of Whiteness" was the first real attempt to point to white identity as a major historical force. Workers learned to use their whiteness, he argues, as an advantage in elevating themselves above blacks. Ignatiev sees the clearest example in the American Irish. He shows the Irish, normally seen as a paragon of up-from-the-bootstraps assimilation, using every institution from the Longshoreman's union to the Democratic Party to escape their lumpen roots by cloaking themselves in privileged whiteness. He calls it the story of "How the Irish Became White," which is the title of his 1995 book on the subject. Both writers feel that the reason whiteness is such a powerful tool is that its beneficiaries see it as natural and deny that it even exists.

Like most scholars in the field, Roediger and Ignatiev are themselves white. Touting his working-class credentials, Ignatiev likes to mention that he'd worked for years as a miner and electrician before coming to teach at Harvard. At a recent conference in Manhattan, he was dressed casually in khakis and a polo shirt, smiling and schmoozing gaily with colleagues and admiring fans. His 8-year-old son sat on his lap while Ignatiev spoke in front of an audience of 150. Articulate, patient and avuncular, Ignatiev hardly seems like a bitter man or a grandstander, which is why it's a little puzzling when he takes center stage as the leader of a radical movement proclaiming that "the key to solving the social problems of our age is to abolish the white race."

Apparently, whiteness isn't just going to disappear on its own. Coming from the credentialed panelists, the rhetoric was both chilling and atavistic. Ignatiev went on in his typical manifesto manner, calling for "a vision as bold as that of the fascists and the white supremacists, and a vision that is more radical and more universal." Beyond the heated opening oratory, the two-day event was more like a makeshift teach-in than a weekend with the modern language association. Probably only a handful of actual scholars were there, and the rest of the young crowd looked like typical denizens of the East Village. Once the introductory speeches were over and the interactive "workshops" began, what little coherence was noticeable at the beginning pretty much fell by the wayside. The discussion on "Culture and Counterculture," for instance, was telling. After an hour of back-and-forth over the insidiousness of white suburbanization and the importance of beating up Nazi skinheads, one participant with baggy pants, chained wallet and a crew cut walked in at the very end. "All this talk, you know, is good and everything ... but I just want to do something," he said. "I just feel like tearing some shit up." Heads were nodding in agreement as the session commenced.

Clearly, Ignatiev and company are trying to take the message beyond a handful of indignant professors. In fact, Ignatiev inhabits only the fringes of the academy himself. Without the protection of tenure -- his lecturing stint at Harvard just ended this past semester -- he's not hopeful about his prospects. Understandably, his platform hasn't made him many friends in the establishment. "And I don't know if I can go back to being an electrician," he says.

He's managed to make a name for himself through a journal he co-edits with John Garvey, an administrator at the City University of New York, called Race Traitor. Almost like a fanzine, it's a collection of writings on whiteness by scholars, skinheads, bike-messengers and prisoners. In addition to an extensive Web site, Race Traitor has published selections in a single volume that has sold nearly 15,000 copies. There are turgid essays that could just as easily be found in an academic history journal side by side with personal ramblings by white teenagers talking about their penchant for hip-hop. All of them stick to the journal's motto that "treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity."

They might have broken out of academic obscurity (the arrival of whiteness studies was announced by a front-page article recently in the Wall Street Journal), but how popular can a movement based on eliminating the white race get? Does "abolish the white race" mean abolishing white people? The jacket cover of David Roediger's book, "Towards the Abolition of Whiteness," shows an image of a gargantuan nude black woman clutching two sporty white men in the palms of her hands as if she's about to squish the life out of them. The sociosexual overtones of that one you can figure out for yourself.

And while Roediger somehow avoids explaining exactly how to carry out his goal, Race Traitor is pretty clear -- deny your white identity by taking on a new one. The attraction to blacks is thinly veiled at best. According to Ignatiev, the American experience is fundamentally one of uprootedness, and it is blacks who most clearly personify this tradition. In other words, slavery is the quintessential American institution and blacks are the truest Americans. It's hardly the most nuanced view of history, but then again, this isn't a scholarship of finesse.

"For whites, the willingness to borrow from black culture does not equal race treason," the editors write. "Nonetheless, we are convinced that widespread borrowing hints at the possibility of something larger and more powerful than fashion decisions." Showing shades of Norman Mailer's 1957 essay "The White Negro," essentially a celebration of black hipness, Race Traitor looks fondly at "crossover dreams" like that of Sal Paradise in Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," which the journal quotes in an epigraph: "Wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music ..." Fortunately for the race traitors, abolishing the white race is cool, too.

Yet, while whiteness studies seems to have found its place on the scholarly radar, it's having a much tougher time finding some kind of cohesion. Not all of its acolytes are as simultaneously baleful and star-struck as the race traitors. Mike Hill, author of the forthcoming book "After Whiteness" and one of the outspoken new voices in the field, describes Race Traitor as "incredibly naive" and dismisses its touting of "loyalty to humanity" as "the same kind of whiteness trope the colonialists used." Annalee Newitz, a doctoral student at Berkeley and another young whiteness pundit, calls out both Roediger and Ignatiev for suffering from an identity crisis and indulging in a "spectacular white self-punishment" that makes them look like a couple of teenagers who've been watching too much MTV.

It's a pretty sly attack coming from a grad student. Hill and Newitz are two of the young essayists writing in a new volume called "White Trash: Race and Class in America." Unlike seasoned labor historians such as Roediger and Ignatiev, most of the writers in "White Trash" are up-and-coming critical theory buffs who think "loyalty to humanity" should have gone out with "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test." Hill describes it as a generation gap between older left-wing scholars and younger "theory-trained students." Tellingly, it's the aging historians who are talking revolution while the young hot-shots are reveling in kitsch and quibbling over Derrida.

But if the beatniks were enamored of blacks, the new school of whiteness finds its own romance in the trashiest of whites. "White Trash" co-editor Matt Wray specializes in studying trailer parks, shopping malls and gun shows. And cultural studies warrior Constance Penley proudly announces her own "white trash upbringing" as a guide for her project of "populist cultural criticism." Like Wray and Penley, many of these writers speak fondly and sagaciously of their trashy roots in the multicultural arena. At once self-immolating and self-celebrating, it's all part of cutting edge academia's progressive race to the bottom.

Is it really any wonder then that the attempt to turn "subversive" scholarship into a coherent movement almost always appears to be doomed from the start? Back at the conference, the group of speakers on the floor -- including Ignatiev, along with Robin Kelley, an African-American historian at NYU, and the Rev. Mary Foulke, Protestant chaplain at Wellesley College -- weren't much help in clearing things up. While Ignatiev gave the familiar line about moving beyond conventional discussions of race by attacking whiteness, Foulke spoke about the "spiritual emptiness of racism" and Kelley proclaimed that "the only way to abolish whiteness is to destroy the structures of racism itself."

A little confused, one audience member asked why some of the speakers were talking not about whiteness, but about "fighting racism," an agenda Ignatiev himself has openly dismissed. All three scrambled, fumbling over each other's thoroughly garbled lexicon of "construction," "abolition" and "treason," and never managed to answer the question. It was a testament to how divided critics of whiteness really are.

Not that it's been all for nothing. In spite of all the conflict and confusion, one could argue that many people are now willing to see that white is indeed a color of its own. And as scholars of all stripes joust over the direction of the field, they might take solace in the fact that they are marching together under the banner of whiteness.

Whatever that means.

By Tim Duggan

Tim Duggan is a writer who lives in New York.

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